Epilepsy plagues so many—1 in 26 Americans will develop it at some point in their lifetime—but now there’s hope for many Americans thanks to cannabis.
Marijuana’s potential as a treatment for epilepsy first really broke onto the scene in 2013 when news hit that Charlotte Figi, an eight-year-old suffering from a rare form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome that is treatment-resistant, experienced a dramatic reduction in seizures following the use of medical marijuana.
Now, a recent cannabis study provides further hope for epilepsy patients seeking relief.
Cannabis and Epilepsy: The Devinsky Study
In late 2015, Orrin Devnisky of New York University Langone Medical Center teamed up with multiple peers from neighboring centers to publish the results of their “cannabis-based drug for treatment-resistant epilepsy” study. The study is the largest of its kind thus far and was published in The Lancet Neurology.
Within the study, 162 patients were introduced to 99 percent cannabidiol (CBD) across 12 weeks. CBD is a non-psychoactive marijuana chemical. In this case, all patients were aware what they were being treated with, and CBD was used to augment existing medications.
The results? CBD reduced seizures at the same rate of existing drugs (median 36.5%) and approximately two percent of all patients became seizure-free.
CBD is particularly notable here because unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD provides no high or risk of mental impairment or addiction. Instead, it may even offer antipsychotic properties on top of its potential anticonvulsant nature.
Adverse effects from the cannabis treatment were minimal. While 79 percent of all patients reported suffering from fatigue, diarrhea, and drowsiness, only 3 percent of these respondents felt the need to leave the study.
Cannabis and Epilepsy: Study Concerns
Two Yale University neurologists unconnected to the study—Lawrence Hirsch and Kamil Detyniecki—note that the placebo effect may have been a factor in the Devinsky study.
Additionally, the two note that because cannabis was used to augment existing drug treatments, the possibility of drug interactions cannot be ruled out. CBD is a liver enzyme inhibitor, so its presence may have caused the other drugs to become more concentrated in the body. This greater concentration may have led to the reduction in seizures and not necessarily the cannabis/CBD itself.
Cannabis and Epilepsy: Conclusion
In short, it seems that much more research is necessary before the full efficacy (and the reason behind that efficacy) of cannabis/CBD in epilepsy patients is known. However, the outlook remains bright.
“I think, based on the evidence that we have, if a child has tried multiple standard drugs and the epilepsy is still severe and impairing quality of life, then the risks of trying CBD are low to modest at best,” said Devinksy. “[But] I do feel it is critical for us as a scientific community to get [more] data.”