Medical cannabis could prove to be a highly effective way to treat severe epilepsy in children, a team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found.
To get a better understanding of the potential risks and benefits of medical marijuana in young patients, researchers recently completed the first-ever meta-analysis of pediatric patients treated with the plant.
For some [with epilepsy] the improvement was very significant. It reduced seizure rates for a lot of children by more than 50%
Led by Hebrew University Ph.D. candidate Nir Treves, the research was carried out under the auspices of Prof. Ilan Matok at the university’s School of Pharmacy.
The team examined seven clinical studies of roughly 500 young patients (under 18 years of age). From the meta-review, the team was able to uncover both positive and negative effects associated with medical cannabis use in this age group.
Importantly, they found a marked improvement in seizure rates for children suffering from uncontrolled epilepsy.
“For some [with epilepsy] the improvement was very significant,” Treves told The Media Line. “It reduced seizure rates for a lot of children by more than 50%.”
According to Treves, CBD – one of the prominent compounds in cannabis – specifically was found to be effective at alleviating epileptic symptoms in many but not all cases.
However, these improvements also came at a cost.
“This treatment is also associated with events of decreased appetite, which might be a little bit alarming for children,” Treves revealed. “It’s also a little bit surprising because what we knew until now is that cannabis [usually] increases the appetite.”
If not carefully monitored, this decreased appetite could negatively impact children’s physical development. Cannabis products were also found to adversely affect children’s mental state, causing lightheadedness, fatigue and lethargy.
“All of these side effects were associated with all kinds of cannabis and cannabinoid products,” Treves said, specifying that even non-psychoactive cannabis elements caused adverse effects.
Treves and his team will be presenting their findings this week at the 31st Annual International Cannabinoid Research Society Symposium (ICRS), which will be held in Jerusalem for the first time. The Hebrew University’s Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research (MCCR) – a leading research center on cannabinoids, endocannabinoids, and medicinal cannabis – is hosting the conference.
As part of the meta-analysis, Treves and his team also found that medical marijuana may effectively curb some of the harmful side effects of chemotherapy in pediatric patients, such as nausea and vomiting. Nevertheless, because the sample size for this part of the research was very small, the results are not conclusive.
Overall, medical cannabis research is still in its infancy and much more remains to be done before scientists can fully understand the impact of the plant on children’s health.
“There is almost no research,” Matok told The Media Line. “There are only seven or eight randomized clinical trials on medical cannabis in children. That’s it! The numbers recruited in those are very small so there’s not a lot of data.
”We talk about associations and not causality because this is a meta-analysis,” he added. “Each trial has its own settings, its own patients and its own cannabis [strains].”
Children react differently to drugs than adults do and thus require their own separate clinical trials, Matok said. He believes that the dearth in serious medical marijuana research is partly linked to its association with negative connotations. Even in adults, the research is severely lacking.
“Whereas Pfizer and Moderna were able to conduct clinical trials for their COVID-19 vaccine on kids, few top-notch clinical trials exist for cannabis use in children,” he said. “This is why it is not approved as a drug.”
The Hebrew University is planning to publish the findings of their meta-analysis shortly. In addition, Matok’s next research project will examine whether medical cannabis raises the rates of depression, cardiovascular incidents, and involvement in car accidents in young patients.