Epilepsy is a disorder marked by seizures – two or more in a 24-hour period – caused by disruptions in the electrical activity of the brain.
Symptoms of the disorder, which impacts 65 million people worldwide, including 3 million in the United States, include:
- Uncontrollable movements, including jerking or pulling
- Frozen, tight muscles
- Tingling or dizziness
- Staring or confusion
- Emotional changes
- Repetitive movements
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of recognition
In general, there are several phases a seizure, beginning with an aura or some other signal that acts as a warning, the middle of the seizure when the brain’s function is disrupted, followed by a recovery period, which can last minutes or hours.
There are a variety of risk factors for a seizure including brain injury, bleeding in the brain, brain tumors, brain infections, a stroke, late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, autism and illegal drug use.
Seizures are serious, and can cause permanent brain damage or death.
There are a variety of different medications used to control seizures, which can be used either alone or in conjunction with other treatment options, but cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in cannabis not associated with psychoactive effects, may be just as effective as prescription medications, which not only come with side effects including decreased liver function, but also don’t work for about 30 percent of people with epileptic seizures.
In 2013, CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta – a proponent of the legalization of marijuana due to its medical benefits – focused on a specific extract, Charlotte’s Web, which is high in CBD. Charlotte’s Web helped a Colorado girl with Dravet syndrome – a form of epilepsy that begins in childhood – go from having as many as 300 seizures a month to two or three, raising awareness of medical marijuana’s benefits for those with epilepsy.
“Medical marijuana has calmed her brain,” Gupta wrote in a 2013 essay about why he now supports medical marijuana.
While the path toward legalization of cannabis has slowed medical advancements by holding up research, many experts agree with Gupta and support the use of medical marijuana for those whose epilepsy is not controlled by traditional medications.
“CBD as an anticonvulsant has a broad spectrum of activity. In other words, it works on many different kinds of seizures and has the possibility, again, of doing this without any of the liability that THC might produce, both in terms of side effects but also legal constraints. So that’s a big advantage,” said Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and expert on medical marijuana who has written extensively about the benefits for a variety of different medical conditions.
For those with epilepsy, one particular version of cannabidiol is Epidiolex, an oil-based CBD extract from GW Pharmaceuticals that is available at some epilepsy centers as a treatment option. In studies, Epidiolex was found to decrease seizures in study participants by 54 percent.
“Based on these preclinical studies, one would be excited about the potential therapeutic potential of the cannabinoids,” wrote Dr. Francis M. Filloux in the journal Translational Pediatrics.
Other studies have found that for those whose epilepsy is not controlled by cannabinoids only, a combination of CBD and THC may work in synergy to help control seizure activity.
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