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Over the past decade, reports about using cannabis as a treatment for autism spectrum disorder have been hailed as controversial by mainstream doctors (and mothers) alike. That narrative is starting to change, however. A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University lessened autism symptoms in animal models using THC cannabis oil, according to a study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, which was reported on in Israel 21c

Shani Poleg, the Ph.D. candidate who led this research, said the team found that cannabis oil had “a favorable effect on compulsive and anxious behaviors in model animals.”

“According to the prevailing theory, autism involves overarousal of the brain, which causes compulsive behavior,” said Poleg to Israel 12c. “In the lab, in addition to the behavioral results, we saw a significant decrease in the concentration of the arousing neurotransmitter glutamate in the spinal fluid — which can explain the reduction in behavioral symptoms.” 

The study found that CBD alone had no impact on animal behavior. Conversely, THC produced equal or better “behavioral and biochemical effects.”

“We observed significant improvement in behavioral tests following treatments with cannabis oil containing small amounts of THC,” Poleg said, “and observed no long-term effects in cognitive or emotional tests conducted a month and a half after the treatment began.”

The study’s authors don’t ignore the controversy of giving autistic people cannabis oil, however. In fact, they mention that using cannabis products “raises medical and ethical questions” since many patients are young children. “During young childhood and adolescence, multiple neurological systems, such as the glutamatergic, dopaminergic and endocannabinoid systems, rearrange and maturate,” the authors write. “Data show that some cannabinoids, THC among them, might harm the developing brain.”

The study’s authors go on to say they “question the necessity of high doses of CBD in medical cannabis oils designated for alleviating [autism spectrum disorder] core symptoms, and suggest that a medical cannabis oil that contains relatively small doses of THC is preferable, due to an additional plausible effect on social behavior.”

This research comes on the heels of other findings by Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center that showed 80 percent of parents of autistic children reported significant or moderate improvement in their child while using CBD-rich cannabis oils.