According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a cannabis compound has been proven to reduce the frequency of seizures in people with a rare, severe form of epilepsy.
For years, parents have pointed to anecdotal benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in the marijuana plant that does not produce a high, saying it reduces seizures in treatment-resistant epilepsy. For the first time ever, science agrees.
For the study, researchers focused on 120 patients ranging in age from 36 months to 18 years suffering from Dravet syndrome – a rare form of epilepsy that begins in infancy and is linked to a mutation that is often resistant to combinations of up to 10 conventional seizure medications.
Sixty-one patients were chosen at random to be treated with cannabidiol, and the remaining 59 were given a placebo. Neither the researchers nor the families knew who received the medication to prevent bias.
According to the study’s lead author Dr. Orrin Devinksy, director of NYU’s Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, the cannabidiol proved to be a successful treatment. “The message is that cannabidiol does work in reducing convulsing seizures in children with Dravet syndrome.”
For those in the cannabinoid group, the median number of convulsive seizures per month dropped from 12.4 prior to treatment, to 5.9 after cannabidiol was administered.
In comparison, the placebo group saw little improvement in their condition.
The most commonly reported adverse effect was drowsiness, with 22 patients in the cannabidiol group and six patients in the placebo group. Some gastrointestinal effects, such as vomiting and diarrhea, were also reported.
Of the 120 patients enrolled in the study, 12 patients quit prior to the conclusion: nine on the drug and three in the placebo group.
Dr. Mark Ware, director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, says the findings add credibility to the widely held view that CBD helps patients with epilepsy, though he cautions that the CBD used in the trial is pharmaceutical grade, administered under carefully controlled experimental conditions.
“It is important to note that not all patients will respond,” Ware said in an email. “CBD was also shown to have important side-effects and possible interactions with other anti-epileptic medications, suggesting that while CBD is generally safe, therapy should be initiated with a carefully regulated product under careful medical supervision.”
Neurologist Blathnaid McCoy of the Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital is conducting a similar study. She and her team have enrolled 20 participants in a Tilray-sponsored trial of a combination CBD and THC treatment for children with Dravet syndrome.
McCoy says that there is a significant placebo effect when it comes to epilepsy treatment, making it crucial for the team to show marked improvements in seizures above placebo.
“If it improves your seizure control, then families will accept a certain amount of side-effects,” McCoy said, adding that a THC-CBD combination product is what’s available in Canada, so it’s what patients there are using. But, she warns that little is known with regard to the use of THC medicinally in children, so figuring out the safe dose and side-effects will be key.
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