Last year, Toronto teenager Abigail Weightman suffered from eight to 10 seizures a month due to a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. Then, in March 2017, she entered a study conducted at the Hospital for Sick Children (also known as SickKids Hospital), using cannabis oil for treatment.
So far in 2018, Abigail, 16, has only experienced three seizures, a reduction of 90%.
“[Cannabis oil has] been life changing. Before, the seizures would make her tired, lethargic. She wasn’t really aware of what was going on around her a lot of the time,” says her mother, Laura Weightman, in a CTV News interview. “Now she’s so engaged with the world. She’s trying to say new words and she’s interacting with her family and friends. It’s just been fantastic.”
The study involved 20 kids with Dravet Syndrome, which can cause significant developmental delays and learning disabilities because of frequent seizures.
The SickKids research team focused on finding safe dosing and tolerance levels for cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main components of marijuana. A dropper was used to administer cannabis oil orally at a 50-to-1 ratio—so 100 mg of CBD per mL versus 2 mg of THC.
While the THC level was low enough that the kids didn’t get high or have serious side effects, the CBD-THC combination was effective. A hospital neurologist claimed that “63% of kids had at least a 50% reduction in their seizures." They also said that the kids also enjoyed an overall improvement in quality of life.
Coping With Epilepsy Seizures
This study and other recent ones indicate that medical marijuana has a major role to play in dealing with the effects of epilepsy. This is a disorder of the central nervous system, in which “brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures or periods of unusual behavior, sensations and sometimes loss of awareness,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Seizure symptoms can vary greatly, ranging from blank-eyed stares for a few seconds to more violent and prolonged ones, with twitching limbs and loss of consciousness or awareness. In some cases, the seizures can disappear of their own accord over time, and in others, lifelong treatment is required.
Traditional treatments include medications, surgery and therapies, such as vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation and the ketogenic diet.
Cannabis Brings New Hope for Epilepsy Sufferers
As more countries embrace medical marijuana to treat a variety of conditions, studies are finally being done to measure its efficacy for treating epilepsy. Last June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first prescription drug made from marijuana called Epidiolex, used to treat two rare forms of epilepsy starting in childhood.
The strawberry-flavored syrup containing CBD, produced by the U.S. subsidiary of British drugmaker GW Pharmaceuticals, has been proven effective. It can now be used to treat people two years and older with Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS).
A variety of studies focusing on Epidiolex, like the one published in the New England Journal of Medicine last May, have shown the addition of CBD to a traditional seizure medication decreased the frequency of drop seizures significantly, in children and adults with LGS. And among people with Dravet Syndrome, CBD led to a greater decrease in convulsive-seizures than a placebo.
Other studies have shown similar promise. For example, a 2016 Israeli study applying a medication with 20 parts CBD to one part THC was performed in an open-label format for children up to age 18 years with hard-to-control epilepsy. A significant number of these kids reported a reduction in seizures, with only 7% claiming seizures worsened.
But for folks with seizures who don’t want to or can’t go the pharmaceutical route, even cannabis-based pharmaceuticals, there’s always whole plant marijuana to consider. But it must be selected carefully since there’s some evidence that THC may actually cause seizures.
Researchers in Japan found that in mice, high doses of THC and the synthetic marijuana called Spice, caused seizures. That said, it should be noted that the amounts of THC used in the lab were significantly more than anyone would consume in real life.
Still, if you’re considering cannabis as part of an epilepsy treatment, start with high-CBD oils or strains. If you don’t want to smoke your CBD-rich cannabis, you may want to take an oil sublingually, or under the tongue. This consumption method is fairly fast-acting and relatively easy to administer.
Of course, if you’re put off by the taste of cannabis, you can always opt for CBD-rich cannabis soft gels, which don’t have a flavor or odor.
Meanwhile, if you’re not opposed to vaping or smoking, there are plenty of high-CBD cannabis strains to choose from, such as:
Provincial Health Plans Need to Step Up to the Plate
In her daughter’s case, Laura Weightman claims that the cannabis oil treatment has opened up the world for Abigail, since she now has the energy and enthusiasm to do things she couldn’t before, such as jump on a trampoline, make puzzles and ride a bike.
The only drawback is that now that the study is over, the family has to cover the costs of the treatment themselves, more than $900 a month after a “compassionate” discount from the manufacturer.
This points to the need for more studies so that cannabis-based medications are made part of provincial health plans and accessible to anyone who needs them. But in the absence of access to cannabis-based medicines, high-CBD medical marijuana can also give folks with seizures the relief they need.
Photo credit: Caroline Hernandez