Children suffering from Dravet syndrome, a rare and incredibly severe form of epilepsy, could finally have an effective treatment option on the horizon. Early clinical trials have found that cannabidiol, an oily substance produced by the hemp plant, can reduce seizures significantly even after all other treatments have failed. For patients suffering from the disease and their anguished parents, cannabidiol can offer a new lease on life. For doctors, it’s offering crucial insights into the causes of a horrible illness.
A Cruel Disease
The term epilepsy refers to a wide variety of seizure disorders affecting more than 3 million people in the United States. Many types of epilepsy are both mild and highly responsive to treatment, allowing patients to live normal, active lives. Victims of Dravet syndrome are not so lucky. The disorder strikes otherwise healthy infants less than 18 months old, and it strikes hard. Children with Dravet syndrome usually experience their first seizures during a bout of fever, but after that anything from taking a hot shower to getting excited can set them off.
Seizures associated with Dravet syndrome are severe–potentially life-threatening. Patients are at a vastly inflated risk of sudden unexpected death, according to the Dravet Syndrome Foundation. They are also at serious risk of accidents like drowning or falling, and their immune systems are often severely impaired. A case of the flu can become life-threatening, especially if it brings a fever. Children with the syndrome require constant care because seizures can occur several times a day, sometimes dozens of times per day, and each one can last longer than 20 minutes.
To make matters worse, Dravet syndrome is notoriously hard to treat. The condition is difficult to diagnose. Surgery is usually useless, as are many standard seizure medications. Some medications, like commonly prescribed sodium channel blockers, even make seizures worse for Dravet patients. Virtually all patients wind up needing to take a cocktail of different drugs, and even then frequent seizures can be a fact of life. The Epilepsy Foundation advises that Dravet syndrome sufferers need “a multidisciplinary team” of medical professionals to handle their health care.
Breakthrough Cannabidiol Research
Dravet syndrome is a devastating illness with few effective therapies, but a new treatment is showing promising results in clinical trials. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-psychoactive chemical derived from the cannabis plant, and for some children with this rare and severe form of epilepsy, it might be a miracle.
Scientists studying seizures in rats identified CBD as an “effective and relatively potent anticonvulsant” as early as the 1970s, and recent clinical trials in humans have underlined the compound’s promise. A 2016 paper in the journal Pharmacological Research noted that the most current evidence indicates CBD “is able to manage epilepsy in both adults and children” without triggering severe side effects associated with other seizure medications. A year later, the New England Journal of Medicine published a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment–the gold standard in clinical research–involving 120 children with Dravet syndrome. The result? Patients receiving CBD saw their seizure frequency decline from 12.4 per month to just 5.9 per month. By comparison, patients receiving the placebo had 14.9 seizures per month at the beginning of the study versus 14.1 per month at the end. Cannabidiol, the researchers concluded, “resulted in a greater reduction of convulsive seizure frequency than placebo.”
The Dravet Syndrome Foundation cautions that CBD research is still in its early phases. The best recent studies have been limited by small sample sizes, and scientists still aren’t sure why CBD seems to work so well. But new research is in the pipeline. Scientists at the University of Washington, led by Dr. Ruth Westenbroek, were awarded a $164,000 grant to study CBD as a Dravet syndrome treatment over the next two years. If their study and others continue to find similar results, cannabidiol could become the first line of defense for children suffering from this devastating form of epilepsy.
Learn more about CBD and its potential benefits for this subject, and other conditions, in an article published here.