A new study revealed that 14% of people with epilepsy have turned to cannabis to alleviate their condition — almost all of them report significant improvements.

Image credits: Garretttaggs55 / Wikipedia.

Epileptic seizures are episodes that can vary from brief and nearly undetectable to long periods of vigorous shaking. For many people suffering from this group of neurological disorders, there’s no effective treatment. Although medication can control seizures effectively in about 70% of cases, that still leaves a great number of people suffering from seizures. Marijuana has often been reported as effective in dealing with seizures, but so far, scientific evidence is insubstantial. Yet, even so, people are turning to it more and more.

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A nationwide Australian survey found that 14% of people with epilepsy had used cannabis products to manage the condition, with 90% of adults and 71% of children reporting some success in managing the seizures. The study was led by Anastatsia Suraeve from the Lambert Initiative, who said that the study didn’t aim to see whether or not cannabis actually helps epilepsy sufferers, but why people choose this line of alternative treatment.

The study does have major limitations, as it relies on the patients’ own reports and was carried out online, not in a controlled lab setup. But even so, the fact that so many people are turning to cannabis, and so many of them (almost all) report some progress is intriguing.

“Despite the limitations of a retrospective online survey, we cannot ignore that a significant proportion of adults and children with epilepsy are using cannabis-based products in Australia, and many are self-reporting considerable benefits to their condition,” Suraeve said. “More systematic clinical studies are urgently needed to help us better understand the role of cannabinoids in epilepsy,” she said.

Indeed, figuring out whether marijuana makes a difference in epilepsy — and ideally, figuring out how it does this — is essential. Stories of cannabis being able to alleviate seizures have been around for over 150 years, but interest in the medical capabilities of cannabis has increased sharply in the past decade. However, despite anecdotal evidence, the science has been inconclusive at best. Still, there have been some studies highlighting that marijuana can fight against epilepsy seizures. Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at New York University Langone Medical Center recently published the largest study to date of a cannabis-based drug for treatment-resistant epilepsy in The Lancet Neurology. He reports that it can act as an anticonvulsant and may even have antipsychotic effects, but this is just one study — much more is needed, and funding is scarce.

This study was funded by one of the more spectacular donations in recent history. In 2015, the grandparents of a three-year-old girl suffering from a rare form of epilepsy offered a $33.7m donation to the Lambert Initiative to fund medicinal cannabis research. The Lambert initiative explores the potential of compounds derived from the cannabis plant (cannabinoids) in treating a range of diseases.