Cannabis for Pediatric Patients

How Developing Endocannabinoid Systems Sync with Medical Compounds Found in Cannabis Plants

Using cannabis to treat illnesses is not something new. In fact, humans have utilized the plant’s therapeutic properties for hundreds of years. But when it comes to treating children with cannabis, old stigmas and a lack of familiarity may make parents feel uncomfortable with the idea. That is why a deeper understanding is needed when it comes to how cannabis works medicinally.

Here, we examine how cannabis is being used pediatrically without judgement or stigma. But first, a quick understanding of the science behind cannabis.

The medicinal compounds in the cannabis plant interact with a complex system in the brain and body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a signaling system responsible for maintaining a balance of the chemical messages that are sent between our cells. The human body produces compounds called endocannabinoids, which are “cannabis-like” molecules quite similar to the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Endocannabinoids work to maintain homeostasis — balance — of our cells. When there is an imbalance in these compounds, disease may result. We’ve only known about the ECS since 1988, but recent research allows us to understand the critical role it plays in disorders that have previously not been well understood or effectively treated.

There is a growing body of evidence that children with epilepsy, autism and other psychiatric diseases have a dysfunction within their ECS. When this system isn’t working properly, the chemical messages in the brain aren’t balanced and this imbalance is expressed as seizures, abnormal behaviors, and atypical thought processes.

Studies have shown that a healthy, functioning endocannabinoid system is required for a developing brain to mature properly. During adolescence, the developing brain is quite vulnerable. Interference with the natural changes that lead to a healthy adult brain can dramatically alter brain maturation. Research has indicated that physically healthy teenagers who chronically consume heavy doses of THC are at risk. The research has shown these otherwise healthy teenagers were at some risk for increased problems with executive function, impulsivity, memory deficits, attention deficits, problems with decision-making as well as overall lower intelligence quotient (IQ) and verbal IQ. In order for the endocannabinoid system to properly progress and aid in the development of a healthy, mature adult brain, minors who are otherwise medically well should steer clear of THC and cannabis.

What about children who are not medically well? Additional research is necessary to establish the long-term effects of cannabis use in minors who are not medically well. What we do know is that the cannabis plant gives us cannabidiol, also known as CBD. CBD is a compound that is not intoxicating and has tremendous medicinal value with its anticonvulsant, antioxidant, anti-anxiety, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory and antitumoral properties. Cannabis can be grown with high amounts of CBD and very low amounts of THC, so-called “CBD-rich” strains. There is still a small amount of THC in these strains, but the overall experience is dominated by the effects of the CBD. It’s important to note that although there are no long-term studies of CBD, those treating children with CBD have not reported witnessing any negative effects. In fact, doctors using CBD for treatment are seeing children who previously had a very poor prognosis with uncontrolled seizures, developmental delay and cognitive dysfunction are now progressing developmentally instead of regressing. Many are able to stop using pharmaceutical medications that may not have been effective and typically come with unwanted or adverse side effects.

Cannabis for Pediatric Epilepsy

The burden of epilepsy and the negative impact on the quality of life for those with this neurological disorder has triggered a parent-led movement advocating the use of CBD-rich cannabis. Scientists have responded with a focus on research into how the ECS may be a target of treatment for these patients. There is scientific evidence suggesting that people with epilepsy may have an endocannabinoid deficiency, leading to a state where the flow of neurotransmitters in the brain is excessively excited, giving rise to an abnormal firing of the brain cells. Evidence also indicates significant neuroinflammation in the seizing brain. CBD decreases this overexcitement and is a potent anti-inflammatory. In most cases, the CBD treatment used is cannabis oil administered under the tongue, swallowed by mouth, or given through a gastrostomy tube.

Cannabis for Pediatric Autism

The three main symptoms most challenging for families of children with autism are communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors and social challenges, including tantrums and self-injurious behavior. Although the FDA has approved two medications, both antipsychotics, for treating the irritability associated with autism, they have adverse side effects, and may not be effective as a treatment, leaving many families without a solution.

The ECS regulates emotional responses, including anxiety, behavioral reactivity to context, social interaction and the function of the immune system — all functions affected by autism. Preliminary evidence links autism with a deficiency in the ECS. Many children with autism are finding better communication, less repetitive behaviors, less anxiety and better social interaction with the use of cannabis oil.

Cannabis for Pediatric Cancer

Parents often seek cannabis medicine to help their children with symptom relief from the adverse side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. In some cases, having been told the cancer treatment is not working, parents are desperate to find a cure.

Cannabinoids have been shown in animal studies to inhibit tumor growth, cause cancer cells to commit suicide (apoptosis), inhibit metastasis and inhibit the growth of new blood vessels in tumors. Cannabinoids have also been shown to enhance the effects of certain chemotherapeutic agents. Only two clinical trials have been conducted in humans, both in patients with recurrent glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor. Both studies reported benefits with cannabis oil that included both THC and CBD. Cannabis is proving to be a safe option in these very ill children and there are numerous cases of patients enjoying a better quality of life.



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