How CBD Works - How does CBD work for Autism
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We want to tread lightly.
We've written on many different issues.
Some of them are more straight forward like Psoriasis.
Others are much more nuanced and complicated like Schizophrenia and Psychosis.
Even these can be boiled down to distinct pathways in the brain (and even immune system!).
Autism is a totally different animal.
We tread lightly because they're a tremendous amount of suffering surrounding the issue.
We'll stick to research but maybe shed some light on current thoughts that maybe haven't made it out there yet.
The next few years are exciting across the medical field.
We're seeing discoveries weekly now across different pathways that seemed way out of bounds just a few years ago.
More info on CBD and the microbiome of gut bacteria here.
Rapamycin and it's ability to do the brain remodeling that may have been missed earlier.
Finally, we look at CBD directly.
You can jump to any section here:
Okay..maybe we bit off more than we can chew.
It's too important not to!
Let's get started.
There are two basic theories of autism.
The problem is that everything we call autism, may actually be a mix and match of different components, pathways, and issues.
We'll start with the basics.
We'll add some elements (not full blown theories) to these two overarching concepts.
There's a great summary here:
The basic premise is that a person with autism's reward center is different from other people.
There is less of a reward in the brain for social interaction.
Keep in mind that all our "drives" are a function of chemistry in the brain.
The key social driver is Oxytocin.
We'll look at this in depth below but key take-away:
That's sounds a tad bit relevant to the social reward theory of autism.
We're going to look at this in more detail below.
One quick reminder...it's primarily made in the hypothalamus.
Remember that area of the brain! We'll be coming back to it often.
Basically, the theory postulates that sensory stimulus is either too intense or unfiltered for people with autism.
This goes to the heart of many of the behaviors exhibited in terms of sounds, smells, sights, and touch being overwhelming.
There are different regions of the brain involved.
The thalamus acts as a filtering gate before sensory information is forwarded to the cortex
More on that here:
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex is of special importance since it acts as a relay between the emotional centers and logic centers of the brain.
We'll touch base on those later as well.
Of course, there's the Amygdala (the emotional center!) which colors our sensory perceptions with an emotional quality.
It's one of the old parts of our brain where the fight or flight response resides.
It's also intimately tied to anxiety and overly reactive fear responses.
Too much or too little functioning at any of these steps in the process can result in overwhelming sensory processing.
We'll talk about some interesting research on neurogenesis and neuron pruning below which plays into this.
Those are the two big theories and the brain areas involved.
That's all good and well but what can we do with that?
We need to drill down another level to the players on the field.
Let's start with hormones.
We mentioned Oxytocin above which is key to pair-bonding, social reward, and empathy.
To put a fine point on it:
Vasopressin is also referenced in the article as a hormone that affects similar behaviors.
This effect of these two hormones appear to be processed in the anterior cingulate cortex (from above!)
Separately on the hormone front, there's the over-masculanization of the brain during key times of development (in-utero and after).
With all the research on hormone mimickers and disruptors in our food, beauty products, and environment, this alone could be a big reason for the jump in autism diagnosis (along with better ways to measure).
Women have much more of it and it actually functions quite differently between the two genders.
There's a fascinating summary of this difference here
Research is getting closer:
So genes specific to oxytocin may be at play.
Furthermore, by giving oxytocin to children with autism who already had low oxytocin levels, their social interactions improved:
Finally, a study showed that a subset of children with autism responded to oxytosin nasal sprays:
Levels of these hormones vary significantly in the full population and among people with autism.
If the hormone levels are working correctly but the transit (anterior cingulate cortex) isn't functioning correctly, this could explain the difference.
There's a great introduction to this area's effect and remember that oxytocin and vasopressin do a great deal of work in this area of the brain.
It's the mediator between our emotional and rational brains!
We've said throughout this site that all roads will eventually lead back to the gut and autism is no different!
The Microbiome is the next big thing in health (after Crispr).
We'll discuss how gut bacteria can affect the oxytocin levels below!
The hormones primarily speak to the social reward theory of autism.
Let's look at the other theory...sensory overload!
Let's introduce the key players.
As we've discussed many times on this site, the body/brain tends to use competing chemicals to affect change.
In the brain, there are two that drive "activity" for lack of a better word.
Glutamate will increase activity while GABA acts as the brake!
That's a simplified view of very complicated systems but it still holds true.
This is important to the hyper excitability theory (sensory overload) of autism.
Some key clues:
The general theory is that there is an imbalance between these two neurotransmitters resulting a glutamate (excitatory to neurons and synapses) overload.
Too much gas at all the various points in the brain!
Yes...that might feel like sensory overload.
This runaway excitability in the brain also explains why there is a significant association between autism and seizures.
Is it too much gas or not enough brake?
Some research is pointing to the brake (GABA) side.
Again, it may not be the level of GABA but the "processing" of it.
It's not that there's no GABA in the brain but there is some step along that pathway that's broken.
Brain scans further pointed to the GABA brake being faulty:
So GABA is present but it's not functioning correctly.
Just wait till we get to the gut and these chemicals with autism below!
Most of our modern and dreaded ills have some tie to inflammation.
What about autism?
Glad you asked.
First, keep in mind that our inflammatory response resides in the gut.
The trillions of bacteria down there are intimately involved in modulating this whole system.
They turn genes on and off in the immune cells and gut lining!
It's pretty amazing actually and is the future of medicine.
Children with autism were 6-8 times more likely to have gastointestinal problems:
We're back to gut!
Researchers are even seeing the targeted results of specific species of gut bacteria.
For example, one species Lactobacillus Reuteri, was added back to the gut of mice with autistic-like behavior and their symptoms improved!
That species had a direct impact on the amount of oxytocin (mentioned above for social rewards) cells activated.
The plot thickens.
There's a wonderful analysis of the powerful interplay between the most powerful neurotransmitters/hormones (including dopamine, GABA, and serotonin) in our bodies and gut bacteria!
Keep in mind that some of the bacteria have been shown to bolster testosterone production which speaks the the over-masculinated brain theory above.
Furthermore, there are some really bad strains of gut bacteria that have a much higher prevalence in people with autism:
So-called "regressive" autism, where a child appears to be maturing and then there's an abrupt change can be affected by antiobiotics:
Learn all about how the brain and gut interact for key neurotransmitters tied to autism:
Researchers have found that inflammation is a key marker in brains of people with autism.
If this inflammation occurs in the brain, you can imagine how that would manifest itself:
The above article has a great summary of inflammation, immune response, gut bacteria and autism!
This is pointing to a dysregulation of immune response in the gut which may have come from the mother's immune system (and antibodies):
Permeability just means that the barrier between our gut's environment and ours is compromised.
In some situations, bacteria can cross the barriers and go to other parts of the body (brain, organs, joints, etc).
It's the critical cause of autoimmune diseases.
Our bodies immune system then finds these wayward bacteria and attacks them where they are not supposed to be.
That brings us to autoimmune.
Autoimmune just means that the above mechanisms (inflammation, gut biome, gut permeability, and immune response) have broken down somewhere.
The body starts to attack its own tissue or over-reacts in different parts of the body.
There are tantalizing clues that part of autism (or a certain type of autism) is autoimmune by nature.
We'll lay out the groundwork and let you take it from there with lots of research.
First, there's the fact that many people with autism (up to 80% in one study) have gastrointestinal issues.
The gut is the key to our immune response generally and auto-immune specifically.
Next, there's the connection to having a mother with an autoimmune disease and a child with autism:
Specific genes have been tied to both autoimmune risk and autism as well.
The general theory is that antibodies from the mother transfers to the fetus and the immune response to these antibodies during critical development periods may cause a subset of autism.
They even took antibodies from a mother and injected into mice during birth which resulted in autism-like behavior in the baby mouse.
Yes, that sounds horrible but it's a powerful clue that an immune response to antibodies in the mother may cause some of the issues during development.
There's a tremendous amount of research at the link above.
One powerful example...
Specific antibodies or immune responses are now being targeted.
This would speak to the growth of autism over the past few decades.
Learn all about auto-immune history and CBD here.
There's also a layman's guide to this aspect of autism here:
Let's look at one more aspect...we promise!
Maybe a separate cause or just a result of a development process by autoimmune or environmental factors (more on that below), but there's a distinct difference in the balance of brain tissue tied to autism.
The brain goes through 2 very distinct "remodeling" jobs. One at around age 2-3 and another one at puberty.
During this time, it significantly reduces the neurons in certain areas.
It prunes back entire areas of the brain so that the remaining areas can function more efficiently.
It's quite amazing actually.
The amygdala is our fear, emotional, and impulsive part of the brain.
It needs to be pruned back a bit for us to become a functional adult!
THC actually thickened it which can make an adult prone to fear and anxiety responses.
Like we've said elsewhere, THC has some issues (see CBD versus THC).
This pruning process comes into play with autism as research has found that this process might not be functioning correctly
This then points to interesting research on rapamycin.
Rapamycin gained fame when it was shown to help with longevity (the old red wine sirtuin story).
It directly affects a whole system in the body called mTOR which is responsible for proper cellular growth and removal (both very important).
mTOR literally means the "mechanistic Target Of Rapamycin".
Just remember mTOR for now....it will come back around later with CBD!
If mTOR is the root of a class of autism, there was groundbreaking study:
A subset of autism may be a result of genetic differences in how the mTOR pathway works.
Next, a section that has a direct bearing on the type of CBD.
One final stop before the endocannabinoid system and CBD.
You can learn all about Histamines and CBD here but essentially...
It's a major part of the immune response in our body in charge of getting foreign things OUT of the body quickly!
It can over-react and that's allergies.
But what if it overreacts in the brain or nervous system where we do indeed have mast cells (which release histamines!)
Is there a tie there with autism (or a subset of it)?
Researchers are saying yes!
They are finding increased markers in the brains of people with autism for histamine release relative to people not on the spectrum:
Look, we don't expect you to memorize all those markers but just make a mental note for when we get to CBD (going to be very exciting).
Like everything, there's a gene somewhere that's at the root of all physical manifestations above.
Genes tied to our histamine system have even been associated with autism risk:
Basically, by stimulating genes to turn off or downregulate the histamine pathway, symptoms of Autism lessened.
It also has a big effect on what TYPE of CBD we want to use.
Finally, let's get into CBD's world.
We'll start with the system it works in.
We all have an endocannabinoid system.
It's roughly 600,000 years old and we share it with most animals.
It spans almost every type of tissue in the body except for red blood cells.
All the various chemical and tissue pathways we discussed above have interactions with this system.
Here's a quick visual:
Research is showing that it's tasked with balancing key systems in the body:
Those systems are at the heart of autism in the body and brain!
That's a good start.
Let's begin with the easy questions...do researchers show that the ECS (Endocannabinoid system) even affect the behaviors associated with autism?
Since genes are always at play, are there endocannabinoid gene variants which display in autism?
The first sign came from animal models.
They essentially exposed rats to a chemical which results in autism-like behavior.
This lead to a cascade effect of altered levels across different endocannabinoids.
Another gene tied to autism was shown to result in reduced endocannabinoid signaling.
Some of the genes associated with autism risk may actually have an immune system element plus endocannibinoid effects (the two work closely together).
More importantly, they were able to treat this dysfunction of macrophages (the GcMAF above - part of the immune system) that resulted from the endocannibinoid systems not working correctly.
One final piece shows the powerful connection between endocannibinoid gene mutations and autism.
Autism-associated neuroligin-3 mutations commonly disrupt tonic endocannabinoid signaling
We could spend hours looking at genes.
Let's move up the scale a bit!
To the endocannabinoid system itself.
First, activity at the receptors of this system (called CB receptors) showed reduced activity in people with autism:
Remember that powerful neurotransmitter GABA above which acts as the brake for activity in the brain? (the hyperactivity or sensory overload theory)
They found that the endocannabinoid system was at the heart of this activity level.
That hippocampus brain area is critical.
They then found similar endocannabinoid effects on the glutamate system (the excitatory brain neurotransmitter):
Those are the two big players on the neurotransmitter stage for autism!
Maybe more importantly for CBD and autism, they were able to calm the symptoms by stimulating the CB receptors:
There's a growing thought that a subset of autism may result from exposure to toxins or infection during key points of development in-utero or shortly after birth.
Two key models in mice are used to investigate these models.
It turns out that 2-AG, Anandamide, and FAAH (all endocannabinoid) levels and signaling are all affected in these models.
Again, more importantly, they can lessen the symptoms by changing levels of those naturally occurring chemicals:
A similar finding occurs for prenatal infection (bacteria or viral) with an immune response from the mother.
We're going to translate this after but it's really important:
So they gave a single does of what is essentially an infectious bacteria just after birth. This resulted in impaired sociability and behavior mimicking autism like behavior.
These results were shown to be due to endocannabinoid receptors not functioning correctly in the amygdala (important brain area of emotion and other factors)!
Again...what's really important is this part:
They block the FAAH and the social behavior improves!
This aspect of autism basically says that the behavior is a function of endocannabinoid system levels being out of balance.
The synopsis that matters to us:
It's a Who's Dunnit of autism from our laundry list above (inflammation, neurotransmitters, autoimmune, etc).
Really look through this and ask us for any clarifications.
It's so fascinating!
We could spend all day here.
Another great article on the endocannabinoid system and neuroinflammation can be found here:
This is the intersection of immune cell pruning in the brain and faulty inflammation response.
Let's look at CBD specifically.
We're going to have to look at CBD's effects on the various pathways of autism we mentioned above.
Because there's no real research on CBD directly with autism.
There are countless pieces of anecdotal stories on CBD and autism.
Some of which are pretty amazing.
We like research. NIH research.
Until we get that, we'll focus on the research to specific to each pathway.
We'll address these key avenues for autism:
That's a lot to cover.
We're going to hit the highlights as it pertains to autism and refer to other articles for more detail.
Let's get to it.
Remember that GABA is the brake and Glutamate is the gas for brain activity.
The current theory is that GABA is not processing correctly in the brain which leads to hyper excitability (the over-sensitized effect of autism).
CBD's role in the the GABA pathway was found during research into its positive effects for both seizures (highly correlated with autism) and anxiety.
CBD helps to boost GABA signalling:
We just covered how an excess of FAAH (naturally occurring endocannabinoid in our body) can cause social issues similar to autism in animal models.
The above article is interesting as it also goes through the effects of CBD on glutamate and NMDA.
CBD activates the CB receptors and we'll leave it to researchers to describe it's effect:
Key words there are "suppress neuronal excitability".
The second big system that CBD helps to balance is the endocrine system.
You see its effect everywhere from weight and energy to diabetes and sleep.
Let's look at Oxytocin specifically
First, there's a direct connection between Anandamide (the largest endocannabinoid found naturally in the body) and oxytocin levels:
Guess what boosts Anandamide signaling in the body and brain?
Let's go on to neural pruning.
We mentioned the mTOR pathway in the body and brain..
It's the system that governs cell birth and death.
In the brain, it's key to remodeling as needed.
CBD directly impacts the endocannabinoid system's control over this process:
This is why they are looking at it after stroke and for other issues where brain loss are critical (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Dementia, Migraines, PTSD, etc).
Let's make you the most cutting edge person in your circle.
We'll introduce you to astrocysts.
They're just the most numerous kind of cell in your central nervous system.
What do they do?
That sounds important.
Here's where it gets interesting
Put simply, these cells helps keep brain tissue, signaling, and toxin removal in balance!
We'll touch on the inflammatory response and toxin removal later but the pruning is key.
CBD directly affects neurogenesis and neuron balance:
Finally, we discussed mTOR above (how cells are made in the body).
While studying MS, researchers found that CBD helped to balance this pathway:
Next...maybe most importantly...inflammation in the brain.
There's a great summary of research on neuroinflammation in the brain here:
Remembers, subsets of autism may be a result of infection or toxic exposure to the mother during pregnancy.
Another tell-tale clue, the more inflammatory response, the more severe the disease:
There are multiple pathways and tissues in the brain by which CBD exerts its antinflammatory effect.
Check out CBD and inflammation here.
This brings up the general of our inflammatory response....the immune system!
We mentioned how autism may have characteristics of autoimmune diseases and definitely has an association with autoimmune in the mother.
Check out CBD and autoimmune here for more detail.
Let's go right to CBD and autoimmune diseases of the brain.
MS and Encepholomyelitis.
Brutal diseases of the central nervous system.
This was a first clue of CBD's power not only for autoimmune but for the inflammatory actors in the brain (astrocysts and glial cells primarily).
CBD might get at the heart of our immune response (or over-response)...so called Treg cells.
They have their finger on the button.
They scan the environment and decide on the appropriate immune response.
This may be the heart of autoimmune!
What does CBD do here?
To translate, CBD supports Treg function which causes a reduced immune response as required!
Good lord...every other advertisement on TV is for autoimmune disease!
Most with terrible side effects!
Why does this matter for autism?
Altered T cell responses in children with autism
Basically, they looked at children with autism and their Treg cells are significantly off-balanced.
The more dysregulated they were, the more severe the symptoms!
Again, learn all about CBD and autoimmune here.
One last stop.
Mast cells are part of our immune response.
They're the root of our allergic response to foreign entities.
Some people have genetic predispositions to over-react to foreign entities.
Mast cells release histamine which is the allergic response (swelling, running, constriction, etc).
Histamine is even more fascinating in the brain.
It's tied to wakefulness, focus, feeding behavior and it controls a host of neurotransmitters (just serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine...feeling good, driven, and energetic).
It's even associated with a desire to travel! (try to unravel that in brain chemistry).
CBD ability to calm the histamine response is well established.
It started with the usual suspects for allergic reaction:
Scientists went on to find how CBD moderates the histamine response:
PPAR is a pathway that regulates mast cell function and release of histamine.
That's a mouthful but histamines are very important to the type of CBD to use for autism.
More on that here.
Of course, there are basic requirements
3rd party tested free of:
It needs to be organically grown in the US and processed with CO2 extraction.
We screened for these at the CBD comparison page.
Furthermore, we want ZERO THC (issues with brain pruning and allergies PLUS addiction).
There's one more key concern.
We have read 100's of NIH studies and they're all on CBD itself.
Not full spectrum or hemp oil.
Until we see research, that's all just great marketing.
Learn all about Full Spectrum CBD versus Isolate here.
There's another reason we want CBD isolate for autism.
It's the histamine issue!
We want to reduce inflammation and excitability.
For that reason, CBD isolate makes the most sense.
Here are two best priced options for CBD Isolate that passed our screening:
We really put everything we had into this article because we know there is suffering out there.
Let know your results. Let's help each other.
You can also find the best priced CBD oils for Autism here:
Let us know what works, at what dosage, and with what results.
Let's help others learn from your experience!
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