Autism and Marijuana

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Marie Myung-Ok Lee gives her autistic son pot:

Last summer, we reached the six-month mark in our cannabis experiment. We’d been using medical marijuana to help quell our autistic son’s gut pain and anxiety, and we were seeing some huge changes in his behavior and, presumably, his happiness. J was smiling, interacting (one of home-based therapists said she’d never encountered such an affectionate autistic child), even putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher — rinsing and everything! — not only without being told, but without ever having been asked to do such a thing. The more I’d been reading, along with J’s doctor, about the effects of cannabis — analgesic, anti-anxiety, safe — the more it seemed a logical choice.

When their grower moved away for the summer, and they were using a grab-bag of his leftovers, they learned that they couldn’t give their son just any pot:

In the meantime, cracks started to appear in J’s cannabis-aided serenity. One day, his frustration boiled over into a tantrum. Next, hits. An occasional bite. Then the fabric-ripping screaming, sitting with toes pointing down at the floor — his clearest pain sign. Next, he woke up at night, crying and screaming when he had to go to the bathroom. One day, I noticed — could it be? — toothmarks on the neckline of his pajama top (pre-cannabis, he used to chew and eat his shirts and bedding).

I went over his diet with a fine-tooth comb, looking for possible allergens I’d overlooked. I even upped his cannabis dose a bit by adding one more pot cookie. It only made him alternately a bit silly and belligerent. The number of reports he brought home for acting aggressive at school started to tick upward. For Karl and me, this backslide was awful, like when J was 2 years old and started to lose his words. I couldn’t believe it was happening.

I called Organic Guy, to see if he had any ideas.

“It could be because he’s not getting any White Russian,” he said. “The stuff you have is, well, a mix of all the stuff I had left.”

If it weren’t so tragic, it would sound like a bad 1970s comedy sketch. Anyway, there are apparently two major types of marijuana:

Sativas are the leggy plant with the five-pointed leaves, the cover girls of cannabis — they can make you feel more social. Indicas are squat and bushy with gigantic resinous buds that sparkle like Christmas ornaments and tend to induce pain relief and sleepiness. Organic Guy had started J on a variety of both sativas and indicas.

We hit the magic combination with White Russian, a hybrid of two strains: AK-47, a sativa that’s peaceful despite its aggressive name, and White Widow, an indica/sativa hybrid. This seemed to be a perfect balance, giving J pain relief and making him more social without sedating him. The boy who used to push us away had begun to cuddle!

Eventually they got hold of something comparable to White Russian:

Gardening Girl, let’s call her, was licensed. But she had only seedlings in her nursery so far. And she was not growing White Russian.

But Gardening Girl did have a giant resinous ball of an exotic Afghani strain called Kush, an indica with such effective pain-relief properties that it was chosen by a British pharmaceutical company making a medical cannabis product. (Meanwhile, in the United States, a Republican congressman introduced legislation to increase the penalties for selling Kush, tagged as “super pot.”) Gardening Girl had procured the Kush for a patient who’d changed her mind about wanting it, and so she donated it to us, with the license numbers neatly typed out.

I didn’t want to waste a molecule of the Kush, so I divided it between a batch of olive oil and glycerin (a favorite way to extract herbal properties into a naturally sweet, gluten-free base). This filled the house with the smell of pot while I stirred the simmering brews for hours, heating it enough to get the materials to react without making it burn, which would ruin everything. J loved the sweet stuff, which he took from a dropper, and I used the oil for his cookies. But after a week, the results were spotty. J was somewhat happier and in less pain, but he was still irritable and violent, mixed with unending laughing fits. The Kush wasn’t organic, so I didn’t know if J was reacting to the difference between it and the White Russian or to pesticides or other contaminants.

Salvation came in late October when Organic Guy managed to score some White Russian from a protégé. We bought a baggie of dried leaves, which Organic Guy did me the favor of making into an extra-strong batch of olive oil for J’s cookies. Within two weeks, the number of times J was marked for behaving aggressively at school dropped back to the single digits, even zero on some days. This was all the scientific evidence we needed. We’d learned an object lesson: helping J manage his pain, and the aggression it caused, wasn’t as simple as merely giving him some pot, any pot.

The Extremely Male Brain

Friday, June 12th, 2009

When I first read about autism-expert Simon Baron-Cohen — whose theory is that autism results from an extremely male brain — his unusual name stuck with me:

If his name sounds familiar, that may be because his first cousin is Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame. “We’re very proud of him in the family,” he says.

Study links child’s autism, parents’ mental illness

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Study links child's autism, parents' mental illness:

“Our research shows that mothers and fathers diagnosed with schizophrenia were about twice as likely to have a child diagnosed with autism,” said Julie Daniels of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who worked on the study.

“We also saw higher rates of depression and personality disorders among mothers, but not fathers,” she said in a statement.

The study of families in Sweden with children born between 1977 and 2003 involved 1,227 children diagnosed with autism. They were compared with families of nearly 31,000 children who did not have autism. Sweden’s detailed health registry provides a wealth of data for such studies.

The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

Frankly, it’s difficult to watch the first third of Amanda Bagg’s video about her autistic way of thinking. Then the computer-generated voice kicks in, speaking the words she has typed:

David Wolman discusses The Truth About Autism:

The YouTube post, she says, was a political statement, designed to call attention to people’s tendency to underestimate autistics. It wasn’t her first video post, but this one took off. “When the number of viewers began to climb, I got scared out of my mind,” Baggs says. As the hit count neared 100,000, her blog was flooded. At 200,000, scientists were inviting her to visit their labs. By 300,000, the TV people came calling, hearts warmed by the story of a young woman’s fiery spirit and the rare glimpse into what has long been regarded as the solitary imprisonment of the autistic mind. “I’ve said a million times that I’m not trapped in my own world,’” Baggs says. “Yet what do most of these news stories lead with? Saying exactly that.”

Fever can unlock autism’s grip

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

Fever can unlock autism’s grip:

It appears that fever restores nerve cell communications in regions of the autistic brain, restoring a child’s ability to interact and socialize during the fever, the study said.

“The results of this study are important because they show us that the autistic brain is plastic, or capable of altering current connections and forming new ones in response to different experiences or conditions,” said Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, who was one of the study authors.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, was based on 30 children with autism aged 2 to 18 who were observed during and after a fever of at least 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

More than 80 percent of those with fever showed some improvements in behavior during it and 30 percent had dramatic improvements, the researchers said. The change involved things like longer concentration spans, more talking, improved eye contact and better overall relations with adults and other children.

Prenatal testosterone may play autism role

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

Prenatal testosterone may play autism role:

Children exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb showed more autism-related traits later in life, according to findings that suggest the male hormone may play a key role in the complex brain disorder.

The results support a hypothesis that higher levels of testosterone may contribute to autism and reinforce findings from tests on animals, said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Britain’s Cambridge University, who worked on the study.
In Baron-Cohen’s ongoing study, the researchers measured fetal testosterone levels from pregnant women who had amniotic fluid taken for other reasons.

When the children were eight years old, the researchers used questionnaires to see whether they preferred social to solitary activities and how empathetic they were.

This allowed them to measure traits, that in an extreme form, are indicative of autism. In the study children with higher levels of fetal testosterone were better at things such as remembering patterns but not as interested in socializing.

The next step is collaborating with Danish researchers to tap a biological bank that has about 90,000 amniotic fluid samples to test whether there is a direct link between fetal testosterone and autism.

Study links autism with growth hormones, big heads

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

Study links autism with growth hormones, big heads:

Writing in the journal Clinical Endocrinology, Dr. James Mills of the NICHD and colleagues said they compared the height, weight, head circumference and levels of growth-related hormones to growth and maturation in 71 boys with autism to a group of 59 healthy boys.

The boys with autism had higher levels of two hormones that directly regulate growth — insulin-like growth factor-1 and IGF-2. The boys also had higher levels of hormones that indirectly affect growth.

The researchers did not measure the boys’ levels of human growth hormone, which for technical reasons is difficult to evaluate.

The boys with autism and those with autism spectrum disorders had a greater head circumference on average, weighed more and had a higher body mass index than the other boys, although there was no difference in height between the two groups of boys.

Autism: It’s Not Just in the Head

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Autism: It’s Not Just in the Head notes that “the devastating derangements of autism also show up in the gut and in the immune system” — and that may point to new treatment options:

“I no longer see autism as a disorder of the brain but as a disorder that affects the brain,” Herbert says. “It also affects the immune system and the gut. One very striking piece of evidence many of us have noticed is that when autistic children go in for certain diagnostic tests and are told not to eat or drink anything ahead of time, parents often report their child’s symptoms improve — until they start eating again after the procedure. If symptoms can improve in such a short time frame simply by avoiding exposure to foods, then we’re looking at some kind of chemically driven ‘software’ — perhaps immune system signals — that can change fast. This means that at least some of autism probably comes from a kind of metabolic encephalopathy — a systemwide process that affects the brain, just like cirrhosis of the liver affects the brain.”
“What I believe is happening is that genes and environment interact, either in a fetus or young child, changing cellular function all over the body, which then affects tissue and metabolism in many vulnerable organs. And it’s the interaction of this collection of troubles that leads to altered sensory processing and impaired coordination in the brain. A brain with these kinds of problems produces the abnormal behaviors that we call autism.”

When Two Minds Think Alike

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Simon Baron-Cohen says that autism is more common When Two Minds Think Alike:

Over the years I’ve been struck by a pattern among the parents of children with autism. The mothers often say things like “my child is a lot like my husband — just writ large. My husband has to watch the weather forecasts every night, and my son has to watch them every hour.” When I ask about their parents, the mothers comment, “Well, my father was rather similar to my husband — he collected model trains and knew everything there was to know about each one.”

Such observations don’t amount to evidence about the cause of autism, but they do give us clues about where to look. Autism is at root genetic, but new research from my lab at Cambridge University implicates genes inherited from both parents. From this and other observations, we’ve formulated the “assortative mating theory.” Its central idea is that both mothers and fathers of children with autism (or its milder variant, Asperger Syndrome) share a common characteristic and have been attracted to each other because of their psychological similarity.
Furthermore, our studies have uncovered four findings that implicate assortative mating in autism. First, both parents of children with autism are likely to be super-fast on attention tasks, in which the aim is to spot a detail as quickly as possible. Second, both parents have an increased likelihood of having had a father who worked in the field of engineering. Third, both parents are more likely to have elevated scores on subtle measures of autistic traits. And fourth, both parents show a trend toward a more male pattern of brain activity when measured using MRI.
Consider that in the late 1950s, less than 2 percent of undergraduates at MIT (a university that caters to people with good systemizing skills) were women. Today female enrollment has jumped to 50 percent. This microcosm is just one example of how society has changed in ways that would bring strong systemizers into greater proximity. Over the same period, air travel has also meant far greater opportunities for people from widely differing backgrounds to meet, possibly brought together by their common interest in systems. Finally, over this same timeframe, individuals who are systemizers have enjoyed new employment opportunities as the result of the digital revolution. Where 50 years ago a strong systemizer might have found a job as an accountant, today every workplace needs computer-savvy employees, and the financial rewards for good systemizing skills can be immense.

Autistic basketball player causes mayhem at game

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

Autistic basketball player causes mayhem at game:

Jason McElway, an autistic high school basketball team member in Rochester NY, served as the team manager and spirit coach for several years. On the final game of the season the coach let him finally put on a uniform with the rest of the team. Watch what happens then…

As Industry Profits Elsewhere, U.S. Lacks Vaccines, Antibiotics

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

According to As Industry Profits Elsewhere, U.S. Lacks Vaccines, Antibiotics, “By itself, Lipitor, an anticholesterol drug, brings in more revenue — about $12 billion this year — than the entire vaccine market.” That’s because vaccines are drugs with low profit margins, infrequent use and a high likelihood of liability lawsuits. Some history:

Wyeth, Madison, N.J., started making smallpox vaccine in 1885 and was a principal supplier of childhood vaccines in the U.S. for most of the 20th century. But beginning in the 1980s it became the target of lawsuits linking vaccines to a wide range of illnesses without obvious causes such as epilepsy and attention deficit disorder. Wyeth estimates the industry has spent more than $200 million defending itself against hundreds of lawsuits alleging that a preservative in some vaccines called thimerosal causes autism and other diseases. Scholarly studies have failed to find a thimerosal-autism link. The lawsuits haven’t gone to trial.

In 2000, Wyeth discontinued its vaccine against diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis and soon after began to reassess flu vaccines. Vaccines against flu take months to produce and have to be reformulated each year depending on which flu strains are deemed most dangerous. When Wyeth failed to get its vaccine on the market first, it often was forced to discard millions of doses of unsold product.

All this would have been a manageable burden if Wyeth could have charged a high price for its flu vaccine. But government intervention in the market made that impossible. The federal government has long played a big role in mandating use of vaccines and paying for them. [...] In 1993 a federal program was created to provide vaccines to families who couldn’t afford them. The federal government now buys 60% of all pediatric vaccines in the U.S., and it has often used its buying power to drive down prices. It pays just $16.67 a dose to Merck for a triple vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The price for private buyers is $40.37.

Wyeth could charge only $6 a dose for its flu vaccine, says Dr. Paradiso, who is vice president for scientific affairs and research strategy. It pulled out of the market, which left the U.S. vulnerable when contamination at Chiron’s flu-vaccine plant in England forced it to shut down last year.

Taking Animals Seriously

Sunday, August 7th, 2005

I’ve read a few reviews of autistic-author Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation, but Orson Scott Card’s, Taking Animals Seriously, included some fascinating tidbits:

One might wonder how Grandin can feel such empathy for animals, and yet devote so much of her life to creating more efficient and ‘humane’ systems for slaughtering them.

First, she recognizes that humans are not going to give up meat. In fact, many autistic people are meat-dependent. For whatever reason, if they try to live on a vegetarian diet they get weak and sick. It would be surprising if there weren’t some people who need meat more than others.

More to the point, Grandin realized that if it weren’t for the fact that we eat meat, then the millions of meat animals in the world would not exist at all. It is only because we sustain their lives that these species exist in such numbers; if we stopped eating them, and therefore feeding and nurturing them, their numbers would drop catastrophically.

Therefore her work is to try to make their lives content and their deaths calm.

And to this end, she makes sure that their lives are free of fear. Because to most animals, fear causes more suffering than pain.

This makes sense. Animals in the wild who became severely distressed by pain, limping or staggering or holding still and weeping because of it, would be marking themselves to any predator as the easiest victim. So while they feel pain and wish to be rid of it, they do not suffer from the pain as much as humans would. (There is sound research supporting this.)

However, when it comes to fear, the opposite is true. Most humans are able to suppress fear and act in spite of it. While anxiety may keep us up at night, we are also able to feel strong fear signals from our brains and yet decide to ignore them.

Animals can’t do this — especially not prey animals. Fear forces them either to freeze or flee. And when they are afraid and can’t do anything about it, it’s a paralyzing agony to them.

So Grandin works to make sure animals’ lives and deaths are as free of pain and fear as possible.

Sticking Up for Thimerosal

Friday, August 5th, 2005

Sticking Up for Thimerosal explains that there’s scant evidence for vaccines as the cause of autism:

In 1990, Congress made autism one of the disabilities that qualified for federal funding. Thereafter, states were obliged to report all cases of autism. In a Minnesota study, to take one example, admissions of autistic children to developmental programs jumped starting in the 1991 school year and continued to do so for a decade. Often these increases occurred within the same grade. For example, 13 autism cases were reported per 10,000 Minnesota 6-year-olds in the 1995-96 school year — that is, among children born roughly in 1989. Five years later, the prevalence rate for this cohort was reported at 33 per 10,000. These were the same kids. Between the ages of 6 and 11, they’d suddenly ‘become’ nearly three times as autistic — or rather, doctors, parents, and school counselors were enrolling them in programs more aggressively.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)

Immune system, blood altered in autism

Thursday, May 5th, 2005

From Immune system, blood altered in autism:

The children with autism had 20 percent more immune system cells called B cells and 40 percent more natural killer cells.

There also seemed to be differences in other proteins in the blood, although the researchers are still sifting through the data.

The Amish anomaly

Monday, April 25th, 2005

From The Age of Autism: The Amish anomaly:

The mainstream scientific consensus says autism is a complex genetic disorder, one that has been around for millennia at roughly the same prevalence. That prevalence is now considered to be 1 in every 166 children born in the United States.

Applying that model to Lancaster County, there ought to be 130 Amish men, women and children here with Autism Spectrum Disorder. [...] That means upwards of 50 Amish people of all ages should be living in Lancaster County with full-syndrome autism, the “classic autism” first described in 1943 by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins University. The full-syndrome disorder is hard to miss, characterized by “markedly abnormal or impaired development in social interaction and communication and a markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Our reporter could only find three Amish children with full-blown autism: one adopted from China (by Asian-American converts to the Amish-Mennonite religion), one who received a vaccination at the request of federal health officials (and went into her own world almost immediately thereafter), and one more who isn’t described.