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Are cannabinoids key to successful pediatric medicine? Research over the past decade has found that the active components in marijuana may succeed where traditional, adult-oriented pharmaceuticals have not. This series will focus on new research about pediatric cannabis medicines and walk you through the popular debates on the subject. In our first segment, we’ll address one important question: Do children experience marijuana like adults do? This piece will discuss cannabis and the child’s brain.

Children and marijuana

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First and foremost, an inevitable disclaimer: this article is about the potential of cannabis as a pediatric medicine. Medical marijuana has recently made headlines for its huge success in treating life-threatening or debilitating childhood illnesses such as epilepsy, severe autism, and leukemia. This piece is in no way intended to encourage non-medical cannabis use in children. While the research presented in this piece is extremely interesting, only medical professionals and scientific research can ultimately determine what impact this herb has on developing bodies and minds and whether it is safe to use.

Now, onto the good stuff. Marijuana exposure in children under six is on the rise. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of in medical facilities for marijuana-related incidents 1.5 times higher than previous years. This statistic may come as a shock to some. The increase is thought to be caused by increased access to yummy-looking edibles.

Overall, total exposure rates are still pretty low. About 6 per every 1 million children unintentionally ingest the herb. But, while more kids may be accidentally exposed to cannabis these days, more children are also using the herb for medicinal purposes.

The rise of medical marijuana in pediatrics

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The wealth of media attention given to cannabis success stories in pediatric medicine. Many parents have been forced to take significant risks when it comes to finding safe, effective treatments for their children. But, thanks to the bravery of a few who have shared their cannabis-success stories with the world, more and more parents are turning to cannabis with hope that the plant will improve their child’s quality of life.

Back in 2013, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta shocked the nation when he came out in support of medial marijuana. In his documentary series Weed, Gupta awed and melted hearts with the story of Charlotte Figgi, a then four-year-old with a severe form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome. Charlotte was having a whopping 300 grand mal seizures a week prior to beginning treatment with a cannabis oil made from the non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) rich strain Charlotte’s Web.

After beginning CBD treatment? Her seizures nearly stopped completely, dropping down to a couple per month. How can this be possible? And, is this treatment safe for a child so young? New understandings about cannabinoids and developing brains are headed toward some answers.

A case for pediatric cannabis medicines

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There is one simple reason why cannabinoid medicines are promising in pediatrics: the child’s brain is significantly different than the adult brain. These developmental differences make it difficult to treat many childhood illnesses with typical pharmaceutical medicines. Why? Many pharmaceuticals are engineered for adults, not children.

This month, NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed neuroscientist Francis Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain and chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Proman School of Medicine. Jensen tells listeners that there has been a camp of very young children with treatment-resistant epilepsy that have been tremendously helped my compounds in the marijuana plant.

“We’re always looking for new targets. One of the interesting things is that the developing early childhood and teen brain don’t necessarily respond to adult drugs, drugs that are useful in the adult, in the way that adults do. In my work, neonatal seizures, seizures that happen around infancy, they don’t respond to drugs that are perfectly good, perfectly useful, in the adult in the emergency department that might come in with a seizure. Doesn’t work.” – Jensen

So, marijuana may provide an alternative treatment for pediatric diseases that are unresponsive to adult medications. Jensen, for the record, expressed interest in non-psychoactive CBD for childhood seizures. She did not advocate THC and warned parents not to run out and “get their kids high” because of marijuana’s anecdotal success with early life epilepsy. She also points out that in normal, healthy developing brains, marijuana could have a dampening effect that can hinder learning.

Cannabis and the child’s brain

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Israeli researcher Dr. Ester Fride is another expert who believes that cannabis medicines are promising solutions to difficult pediatric conditions. Back in 2004, Fride published research which found that CB1 receptors, one of the primary binding sites for THC, develop slowly in neonatal and young animal models. Because the CB1 receptors were not prevalent in the same capacity as an adult rodent brain, Fride concluded that developing organisms may be less sensitive to the psychoactive effects of THC.

“Developmental observations suggest further that CB1 receptors develop only gradually during the postnatal period, which correlates with an insensitivity to the psychoactive effects of cannabinoid treatment in the young organism”. – Fride

She draws upon this idea in other research. She ultimately concludes:

“Further observations suggest that children may be less prone to psychoactive side effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol or endocannabinoids than adults. The medical implications of these novel developments are far reaching and suggest a promising future for cannabinoids in pediatric medicine for conditions including “non-organic failure-to-thrive” and cystic fibrosis.” – Fride

An anecdotal example

An earlier anecdotal article published by HERB may shed some light onto this topic. Last year, VICE Executive Editor Jonathan Smith gave two ten-year-old girls a pop quiz. One of the girls used cannabis oil daily for leukemia. The other had never used the herb, Smith challenged readers to guess which child used marijuana based on their quiz answers.

Was there any noticeable difference? Not particularly, but you can be the judge of that yourself. This is hardly a scientific test by any means, but enlightening none-the-less.

Other anecdotal interviews conducted by VICELAND showcased marijuana-using children. In one case, one child took the equivalent of “10 bong rips a day” in high-quality medical marijuana. The little girl also suffered from leukemia. Her mother was quick to tell audiences that she can always tell when her daughter’s medicine begins to kick in.

Obviously, we are not children and we cannot pretend to know what a child feels when consuming marijuana. A psychoactive experience is a personal and subjective one. There are also a lot of variables to psychoactivity. The overall cognitive impact may depend on the amount of active THC given, how often it’s administered, and what other cannabinoids are present in the medium of consumption. Thanks to advancements in medical marijuana, it’s also now possible to treat children with completely non-psychoactive cannabis extract and edibles.

Many children with epilepsy have been successfully treated with CBD alone. Children with leukemia and autism are often given extracts that contain THC, CBD, and traces of additional cannabinoids. Unfortunately, medical marijuana isn’t yet an exact science. Though, the industry becomes more sophisticated every year. The type of cannabis available and whether or not your child can use it depends on what products exist and are legal to obtain in your region.

If you are using cannabis extract as a treatment for your child, it may be interesting to record how they describe their personal experience with the plant (if they are able). In an area where there is a lack of firm data and research, anecdotal evidence can be extremely beneficial.

Childhood vs adolescence

Childhood

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Some early research has suggested that the psychoactive effects of a certain THC compound have been recorded as negligible in children up to 13-years-old. Though, this is far from a firm statistic. This number comes from an old paper published by Israeli researchers back in the 1990s. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam was part of the research team. Mechoulam is the man who discovered THC.

In the article, researchers tested the impact of delta8-THC on 8 pediatric cancer patients. Though the sample was quite small, none of the patients reported adverse psychoactive effects. In adults delta8-THC is thought to produce milder psychoactive effects than delta9-THC, which is the primary psychoactive compound in the plant.

The team’s findings were quite surprising. Not only was delta8-THC effective at reducing nausea and pain associated with cancer treatment, but it did so seemingly without producing a psychoactive response in the tested children. Peculiar, isn’t it?

This research went largely unnoticed and underreported until recently. Of course, in order to really understand the implications of this finding, more advanced research and clinical trials are needed. We cannot make any firm statements about what this phenomenon means until trials are conducted.

Adolescence

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Be warned, though. While findings such as Dr. Fride’s suggest that cannabinoid receptors may not fully expressed in young children, research like that conducted by Dr. Jensen has made different discoveries in the adolescent and teenage brain.

“Not only does the teen brain have more places for the cannabis to land, if you will, it actually stays there longer. It locks on longer than in the adult brain.” – Dr. Jensen

Jensen further explains that you are more likely to develop addiction to various substances during the adolescent and teen years. If you do develop an addiction during this time, that addiction is also more likely to affect learning and result in negative mental health consequences later in life. She argues that this is true for alcohol use, smartphones, and technology, as well as marijuana.

During the teenage years, the brain is still going through an intense bout of development. In fact, the brain is the last organ to completely develop. While researchers once thought neurodevelopment stopped in the early twenties, it’s now understood that the brain continues to mature into the mid-thirties before the aging process begins to settle in. Even then, there’s always a level of neruoplasticity present. Plasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and thicken in various regions.

Yet, the ways in which the brain is developing during the teenage period are not necessarily the same as the way the brain is developing during early childhood. It’s not really clear what function cannabinoid receptors play during various stages of human development. This is something researchers still need to figure out.

We can really only take bits and pieces of what is known and create what equates to an extremely fuzzy, pixilated picture of what may be happening. Only the scientific community can sharpen this picture for us. Until that picture becomes clearer, there is no certainty.

The takeaway point in this article is not that THC does not have an effect in children or is 100% safe for them to use. We cannot speak to that. But, there is a growing amount of evidence that suggests children may have a different internal experience with the plant than adults do. This could be especially true in children suffering from certain chronic diseases.

These findings, coupled with the herb’s successful track record in treatment-resistant childhood illnesses, are positive signs that cannabinoids may prove to be powerful pediatric medicines. Of course, the use of this herb is still highly controversial. The only way we’ll be able to tell of these hypotheses hold up is with political reform and more research.

Does any of this research surprise you? Tell us what you think on social media or in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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