Can Cannabis Treat Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a common ailment that proves to be exceptionally disruptive to one's quality of life. It comes in different forms, and when it comes to treatment, the plans are not one-size-fits-all. Epilepsy is characterized by recurring seizures of variable intensity and effect, caused by disturbances in specific regions of the brain's circuity that create 'storms' of extra electrical activity. The Epilepsy Foundation states that approximately 65 million people around the world have epilepsy, 3.4 million of those humans can be found in the United States. 1 in every 26 Americans will develop epilepsy in their lifetime, with two-thirds of those diagnosed will have no specific origin for the disorder.

Those with epilepsy can be any age--sometimes diagnosis happens after 65 with the onset of other neurological diseases, or in children and infants, known as Dravet syndrome. Dravet syndrome has been characterized by prolonged febrile and non-febrile seizures within the first year of a child’s life. (You can read more about this type of epilepsy here.) One of the most harrowing facts is that 34% of childhood deaths are due to epilepsy or accidents that occur during seizures. These figures illustrate the “hiding in plain sight” commonality of epilepsy and the incredible unmet need for the development of novel drugs to treat seizures. However, as we all know, cannabis remains a highly regulated and a federally illegal substance, hindering research and development of the plant for specific disease treatments.

Seizures and seizure disorders are as complex as the person afflicted by them, and in turn difficult to treat. However, in the news and through treating patients, we've seen that the cannabinoid CBD, or cannabidiol, is showing much promise in helping calm seizure disorders. The Epilepsy Foundation agrees and says, "Evidence from laboratory studies, anecdotal reports, and small clinical studies from a number of years ago suggest that cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound of cannabis, could potentially be helpful in controlling seizures." (It should be noted that the Epilepsy Foundation also recommends that this form of treatment should only be considered after a thorough evaluation at a specialized epilepsy center and once conventional treatments (pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic) have been reasonably tried.)

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One notable news report to mention, involves the high CBD strain Charlotte's Web, created for the young Colorado patient Charlotte Figi. Charlotte was having hundreds of seizures a month by age three when her parents decided to treat her with cannabidiol, a known anticonvulsant. The Figis treated their daughter with a specially prepared CBD-containing oil, now known as Charlotte’s Web, which is derived from hemp, a type of cannabis containing less than 0.3 percent THC by weight. They reported dramatic improvement in Charlotte, and since the cannabis strain has been expanded into a full product line, available to many cannabis patients in Colorado.

In 2015, The Lancet Neurology published a study where researchers treated 162 patients with an extract of 99 percent cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive chemical in marijuana, and monitored them for 12 weeks. This treatment was given as an add-on to the patients’ existing medications and the trial was open-label (everyone knew what they were getting). Scientific American reported, "The researchers reported the intervention reduced motor seizures at a rate similar to existing drugs (a median of 36.5 percent) and 2 percent of patients became completely seizure free. Additionally, 79 percent of patients reported adverse effects such as sleepiness, diarrhea and fatigue, although only 3 percent dropped out of the study due to adverse events."

Once again the effects of cannabis show greater promise for a wide range of ailments. Although, safe access to trusted medicine can still be hard to come by. Make sure you speak to your physician or get a consultation when using cannabis as a medicine for treating intense ailments like epilepsy, and good luck.

Information courtesy of Leafly, Scientific American, and the Epilepsy Foundation.

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