Medical Marijuana Helps Kids With Cerebral Palsy, Israeli Study Finds

Cannabis oil is improving the children's motor skills, researchers at Wolfson Medical Center say

Medical marijuana plants (illustrative)
Richard Vogel/AP

Medical marijuana significantly improved the condition of children suffering from cerebral palsy, a study by Wolfson Medical Center near Tel Aviv has found. According to the interim findings, treatment with cannabis oil reduced the disorder’s symptoms and improved the children’s motor skills. It also improved the kids’ sleep quality, bowel movements and general mood.

The study of 40 children, conducted with the medical cannabis company Tikun Olam, began around three years ago. So far 36 children between 1 and 17 have taken part, 20 have completed the test stage and a large majority are continuing treatment with medical marijuana.

“We included the hardest cases in the study, with the highest level of motor disorders,” says child neurologist Luba Blumkin, who is leading the project.

“Usually the motor disorder comes with other problems, like problems with bowel movements that cause pain, orthopedic problems that cause pain, and problems in swallowing and chewing, which make it necessary to feed some of the children by tube directly into the stomach. The pain, which increases with time, causes sleeping problems and makes treatment difficult because every touch is painful.”

In the study’s first two months the researchers examined whether there were any changes in each participant’s condition. After two months of stability the participants received marijuana oil three times a day orally or via a feeding tube. The patients continued taking the medication they had used previously.

“We used several evaluation indexes for the treatment’s effectiveness, such as the effect on the spasticity (muscle contraction), dystonia (involuntary movement) and motor changes, like if the child rolls over or stretches his hand out better. We also checked effects like mood, sleep, constipation, pain and quality of life,” Blumkin says.

Three to four months later the children’s condition improved. “The most prominent difference statistically was in motor function,” she says. “There was also less pain and improvement in sleep and bowel movements.”

As a mother of a 2-year-old who took part in the study puts it, “The difference was felt quickly and was reflected in his calm, compared to his previous restlessness. There was also a significant improvement in sleep, which led to an improvement in our sleep. His motor function also improved, but we don’t know if this was due to the treatment or the fact that he was getting older.”

Today the boy is still being treated with marijuana oil, although with a smaller dosage. “We don’t think he needs it during the day and he takes it at bedtime. There’s a significant improvement,” she says.

Still, the marijuana oil isn’t expected to replace other medication the children are taking. “The marijuana treatment is a good supplement, and according to what we’ve seen so far it’s safe and has no side effects," says Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, a research manager at Tikun Olam. "But it can't be used as the only treatment. Now we have to find the most effective way to provide the marijuana treatment.”

The study tested the effectiveness of two cannabis oils with a different proportion of the two main active ingredients THC and CBD.

"The THC’s effect is especially relevant to motor function, whether it’s Parkinson’s disease or other motor symptoms,” says Bar-Lev Schleider. “But the THC is also responsible for the psycho-active effect, so we picked a variety that also has a lot of CBD, which moderates the euphoric effect."

One group of children was treated with oil with a 1:6 ratio of THC to CBD, while for another group the ratio was 1:20.

“According to the interim findings both oils are effective,” says Bar-Lev Schleider. “After the study period the treatment — dosage and use — are personally suited to each child.”