The use of cannabis to treat children’s health conditions has been the subject of intense debate between pediatric medical professionals and advocates of medical marijuana. It is common knowledge that long-term cannabis use can have adverse effects on the still-developing brains of children and teenagers.
But a recent study reveals that for children suffering from severe epilepsy and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV), some kinds of cannabis derivatives can be more helpful than conventional pharmaceuticals. While the authors of this study acknowledge its limitations, the outcomes it documents could pave the way for the broader use of cannabis to treat the health problems of children and teens.
Details of the Study
The Harvard-sponsored study, which appears in the October 2017 issue of Pediatrics, consisted of a meta-analysis of 22 recent studies of various kinds. The goal of the review was to discover how cannabis was administered in the treatment of children’s illnesses, particularly cancer and epilepsy — and whether cannabis was more effective in relieving symptoms than either a placebo or a conventional medication.
Chemotherapy for cancers of various types typically produces severe nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite. To cope with these symptoms, a large number of adults report using cannabis products in a variety of ways, including smoking, vaping and consuming edibles. But children in treatment don’t take cannabis in this way. Rather, the studies analyzed by authors Shane Sucheng Wong and Timothy E Wilens used some form of existing FDA approved medications that contain synthesized cannabinoids, such as dronabinol or nabilone.
Even accounting for variations in medications and dosages used, Wong and Wilens found that across all the trials, case studies, and retrospective reviews they analyzed, cannabis-based medications performed better than conventional pharmaceuticals for relieving the CINV affecting young cancer patients.
Wong and Wilens also found increasing evidence to support claims that Epidiolex, a synthetic derivative of cannabidiol now being fast-tracked to FDA approval, may be more effective than standard epilepsy medications for treating the severe and frequent seizures of treatment-resistant childhood epilepsy conditions such as Dravet syndrome and Lenox-Gastaut Syndrome.
Limitations of the Study
Wong and Wilens acknowledge that their study has limitations. The kind and dosage of cannabinoids used were highly variable, and typically involved FDA-approved medications made with synthetic cannabinoids rather than natural cannabis. And their analysis found little or no benefit from cannabis medications for post-traumatic stress disorder, neuropathy or mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
The study performed by Wong and Wilens adds support to the growing body of research and anecdotal reports about the positive effects of cannabis for treating chemotherapy-related nausea and stubborn cases of epilepsy. Even so, pediatric specialists are wary of prescribing cannabis for these and other conditions, thanks to a body of research that suggests that using cannabis at a young age raises the risk of learning deficits and problems with memory and concentration. But cannabis advocates point out that those findings come from teens and older children who typically smoked a lot of marijuana for recreational purposes, not carefully controlled doses of a standardized form of cannabis intended for medical purposes only.
Both the cannabis and medical communities acknowledge that more research is needed on the benefits of cannabinoids for children, particularly the natural cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant itself rather than the synthesized variants reviewed in this study. Given the current administration’s opposition to cannabis, that research may be a long time coming — but studies like the Harvard meta-analysis add more support to calls for substantially more cannabis research.