Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that varies in severity and is characterized by deficits in communication, social interaction, restricted interest, and repetitive behaviors (Fusar-Poli et al. 2020). During the last three decades, there has been a threefold increase in the number of children diagnosed with ASD (Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider et al. 2019). Currently, it affects up to 1 in 54 individuals (Maenner et al. 2020). Cooccurring medical conditions such as epilepsy, intellectual disability, and behavior problems occur in these individuals (Pretzsch et al. 2019a; Pretzsch et al. 2019b).
The etiopathogenesis of ASD remains largely unknown. Several genetic, perinatal, and environmental factors seem to be involved. Some researchers have evidenced an imbalance in the endogenous neurotransmission system, such as the serotoninergic, γ aminobutyric acid (GABA), and endocannabinoid system (ECS), which regulate functions such as emotional responses and social interactions typically impaired in ASD (Fusar-Poli et al. 2020).
Endocannabinoids (eCBs) and their receptors are present in the nervous system, connective tissue of internal organs, glands, and immune system. Cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) is a G protein-coupled receptor (GPR) that is found mainly in the central nervous system (Mc Partlan et al. 2014). In mammals, high concentrations of CB1 are found in the brain area that regulates appetite, memory, fear extinction, motor responses, and postures such as the hippocampus, basal ganglia, basolateral amygdala, hypothalamus, and cerebellum (Aran et al. 2019; Mc Partlan et al. 2014). CB1 can also be found in nonneuronal cells. Data indicate that cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2) is linked to a variety of immune functional events. However, it may play a functionally relevant role in the central nervous system (Aran et al. 2019; Bridgemanan and Abazia 2017).
There are two endogenous cannabinoids, N-arachidonoylethanolamine (anandamide) and two arachidonoylglycerols (2-AG). The ECS has been broadened by discovering new secondary receptors, ligands, and ligand metabolic enzymes, including transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 (TRPV1) (Mc Partlan et al. 2014).
Anandamide and 2-AG can act via CB1 and CB2 receptors and exert a range of biological effects in central and peripheral cells. Anandamide is broken down by fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH); inhibitors of FAAH lead to an increase in anandamide. CBD act as an inhibitor of FAAH (Bridgemanan and Abazia 2017). Endocannabinoid signaling occurs in a retrograde direction; that is, signaling is initiated in postsynaptic neurons and acts upon presynaptic terminals. In contrast to classical neurotransmitters, eCBs are not stored. They are produced on demand upon stimulation of postsynaptic cells (Aran et al. 2019; Zamberletti et al. 2017).
Interestingly, CBD displays a low affinity for CB1 and CB2 receptors. CBD facilitates excitatory glutamate and inhibitory GABA neurotransmission across the brain through agonism at the TRPV1 receptor (Pretzsch et al. 2019a; Mc Partlan et al. 2014). Additionally, CBD can increase GABAergic transmission by antagonizing G protein-coupled receptor 55 (GPR55), especially in the basal ganglia. CBD is thought to be an agonist at prefrontal serotonin 5-HT1A receptors (Castillo et al. 2012) (Fig. 1).
Another mechanism of action can be via vasopressin and oxytocin. The presence of oxytocin in the CSF seems to originate from neuronal oxytocinergic extensions to the limbic system, brain stem, and spinal cord. Oxytocin receptors are distributed in different parts of the central nervous system, such as the basal ganglia, limbic system, thalamus and hypothalamus, and brain stem. Oxytocin modulates social behavior, motor function, pain control, memory and learning, eating behavior, stress and anxiety, and emotional processing. Oxytocin administration reduces stress and anxiety and depression in animal models. This effect seems to be modulated at least partly by the effects of oxytocin on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the opioidergic and dopaminergic systems in limbic brain structures. Several animal model studies support the role of oxytocin in improving social behavior, an effect that appears to involve the melatoninergic and endocannabinoid systems, specifically an increase in social interactions produced by agonism at the melanocortin four receptor (MC4R (Russo et al. 2005; Dos Santos et al. 2019). CBD leads to enhancement in the release of vasopressin and oxytocin; thus, it could positively affect ASD core symptoms. Studies have shown that oxytocin administration to patients with ASD improves social interactions, reduces classic repetitive behavior, and increases eye contact (Weia et al. 2015). Another mechanism of action of CBD is to act as a dopamine receptor antagonist, which can facilitate its use as an antipsychotic (Dos Santos et al. 2019; Weia et al. 2015).
CBD may act as a neuroprotectant against mitochondrially acting toxins (Davies and Bhattacharyya 2019; Bartova and Birmingham 1976). The highly lipophilic aspect of CBD gives them access to intracellular sites of action. Many studies have suggested mitochondria as targets for CBD, and many theories are based on this idea; one of these theories is that the outer mitochondrial membrane has CB1 receptors. This theory reveals that CBD affects the function of the cells by establishing homeostasis and influencing mitochondria and energy production (Bartova and Birmingham 1976; Ryan et al. 2009).
THC is known to be a major psychoactive component of Cannabis. THC is a partial agonist at CB1 and CB2 (Ryan et al. 2009). Signals through transducing G-proteins and activation of these G-proteins by THC cause inhibition of adenyl cyclase activity, the closing of voltage-gated calcium channels, and the opening of inward rectifying potassium channels. The psychoactive nature of THC limits its use due to side effects. However, a varied mixture of THC with other phytocannabinoids with very weak or no psychoactivity quality has started to be used as a therapeutic drug in humans (Bloomfield et al. 1982; Rodríguez De Fonseca et al. 1992). In this study, we aim to share our 2-year experiences with CBD-enriched cannabis treatment in autism and review the latest studies.