A pilot study is currently underway in Australia investigating the efficacy of medicinal cannabis as a treatment for severe behavioral problems in intellectually disabled children. It's hoped the research will eventually move into larger clinical trials following anecdotal reports that medicinal cannabis can reduce incidents of aggression and self-harm in children.

The study is being led by Daryl Efron, from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, and is initially just working with 10 children aged between eight and 16. This preliminary study is designed to first evaluate the practicalities and feasibility of the treatment ahead of a larger-scale trial.

"The medications most often prescribed for these children are stimulants, antidepressants and anti-psychotics, which all carry a risk of serious side-effects," says Efron. "There is little research into new drugs to help these children, but medicinal cannabis has been shown to be effective to treat other medical conditions, including some severe epilepsies in children, and chemotherapy side effects and multiple sclerosis in adults."

At this stage the Australian research is focusing specifically on one particular cannabinoid chemical found in cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD). Just last year the FDA approved CBD to treat two rare forms of severe childhood-onset epilepsies. This milestone approval represented the first time a cannabis-derived compound had been officially approved for medical use in the United States.

The research is inspired by a growing volume of anecdotal evidence suggesting CBD is effective at reducing incidences of self-harm and physical aggression in children with intellectual disabilities, including autism. The volume of these anecdotal reports has significantly grown in recent years as marijuana legalization spread across North America, however, quality scientific research in the area is currently lacking.

In the United States there are several investigations currently underway into CBD as a treatment for the symptoms associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As of early 2019 the very first large-scale clinical trial targeted at children with ASD had commenced. That particular trial is examining the efficacy of cannabidivarin (CBDV), a homolog of CBD, in treating the repetitive behavior and irritability associated with ASD in children.

The Australian pilot study is slightly broader than the US work, encompassing a wider variety of intellectual disabilities associated with severe aggressive behaviors. It is still unclear how effective or safe these treatments are, especially when administered to younger children, but Efron affirms the urgent need for the science to be completed.

"As a pediatrician, parents often ask me if medicinal cannabis would help their children," says Efron. "But I am unable to advise on the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis for children with severe behavioral problems, as there has been no research in the field. We hope to fill that void with some quality research."