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Meta-analysis of scientific studies shows medical marijuana treats childhood epilepsy

Children suffering rare forms of epilepsy are having their lives changed by incorporating medical marijuana into their treatment.

Mar 25, 2018 - Rob Hoffman

A new systematic review of medical marijuana’s effects on childhood epilepsy shows that medical marijuana can effectively reduce patients’ seizures. This finding is important, as these rare forms of childhood epilepsy, which are increasingly found to be treatable with medical marijuana, are difficult to treat with other, conventional medicines.

This review of available research was lead by Emily Stockings, a researcher from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney, Australia, and published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. The researchers reviewed six randomized controlled trials and 30 observational studies.

According to the paper, evidence shows that cannabidiol (CBD), specifically, is effective in forms of childhood epilepsy. CBD, like THC, is a cannabinoid found in cannabis. However, CBD does not contain psychoactive properties that get users “high,” making it more suitable for pediatric patients. The review specifically mentions 20 mg of CBD for each kilogram of participants’ total weight per day (20mg/kg/day). CBD was consistently found to reduce the frequency of participants’ seizures by 50% or more.

While conventional medications like valproate can successfully treat roughly 70 to 80 percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy, patients who do not respond to these medications are left with few options. In many cases, medical marijuana is filling that gap.

Numerous similar high profile stories have all made an anecdotal case for medical marijuana as a treatment option for childhood epilepsy. Just recently, the United Kingdom decided to grant a 6-year-old epileptic patient permission to use cannabis-based medication to treat his seizures.

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Alexis Bortell (Photo via Facebook/Alexis Bortell)

In the United States, the family of a 12-year-old girl, named Alexis Bortell, who uses cannabis-based medications to prevent seizures, is currently involved in a lawsuit with the government, in part due to federal cannabis laws that restrict Bortell’s ability to travel with her medication.

These stories are increasingly supported by research, as Stockings’ recent review suggests. However, more research needs to be done in order to understand the full effects of treating childhood epilepsy with medical marijuana. Even in this review, only six of the studies were randomized controlled trials that used methods such as placebo pills, which help yield the most accurate data. The other 30 studies were purely observational, a method of study that is known to be less reliable. The golden standard for clinical research trials—producing the most accurate results—are double-blinded, randomized and placebo-controlled tests. In these types of studies, placebo pills are randomly assigned to participants, and neither the patients nor researchers know who is receiving what. This helps to prevent biased data.

But this need for further research is true for marijuana more generally as well. Currently, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug in the United States, under the Controlled Substances Act. This forces researchers to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops to study marijuana, including major difficulties in accessing federal funding and finding patients for studies.

Still, as Stockings’ review demonstrates, the research that does exist is promising. And for many families who have found a successful treatment for medical marijuana, their child’s improved health and wellbeing is proof enough.


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