Every year, about 150,000 Americans, one in 26 of us, will be diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder caused by unusual nerve activity in the brain.
It is the fourth most common neurological disease in the United States after migraines, stroke and Alzheimer’s.
The symptoms can seem to come from nowhere – momentarily staring blankly into space, suffering a loss of awareness or uncontrollable twitching. The impacts range from mild to severe to death, but even mild cases of epilepsy can be dangerous if they take place during activities like swimming, running or driving.
Julius Caesar was an epileptic. Theodore Roosevelt was an epileptic. So too was Napoleon Bonaparte. Add to the list Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander the Great and a couple of pop icons, Prince and Neil Young. It’s safe to say that for millennia there has been a search for a cure or at least a way to combat the worst of the symptoms.
It’s been a long and frequently fruitless fight. Time magazine reports that epilepsy costs individuals and institutions $15 billion per year. It’s a disease that is far more common than autism, multiple sclerosis or other well-known diseases and it kills more Americans every year than breast cancer. Even so, the disease receives just 20 percent as much research funding from the National Institutes of Health. What’s more, a third of people with epilepsy have an intractable drug-resistant type.
But now, with the help of cannabis, there are new options for the epileptic.
Epidiolex For Dravet Syndrome
On June 25, 2018 the United States Food & Drug Administration approved an oral solution of cannabidiol (CBD) called Epidiolex for the treatment of seizures associated with two different types of epilepsy – Lennon-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome. It’s a new medication option for children and is the first-ever FDA-approved medication to treat seizures in Dravet Syndrome.
Cannabis and Epilepsy
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, federal and state laws have made it difficult for research to proceed smoothly on the use of marijuana and its derivatives. Even so, the research that has been done over the last few years have produced studies that have shown the benefit of cannabis in treating specific groups of people who are afflicted by epilepsy who have not responded to traditional therapies. It has been those studies who have led to the first FDA approval of a cannabis-based therapy for epilepsy.
In clinical trials, groups were divided into those getting CBD and those getting a placebo. Neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was in which group, making for a so-called “gold standard” study.
The FDA isn’t alone in moving forward and permitting the use of cannabis for the treatment of epilepsy. A year before the FDA approval, the United Kingdom’s chief medical regulator, the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) came down on the side of cannabis when it said all CBD products available via the internet and in licensed shops should be classified as medicines.
Cannabidiol Effective for Epilepsy
And Scientific American said UK funding was crucial in funding research that a placebo-controlled study published in the New England Journal of Medicine “clearly established cannabidiol as an effective anti-seizure drug for this disorder and this age group,” according to principal investigator Orrin Devinsky, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “It certainly deserves to be studied in other types of epilepsy.”
In this trial, all of the patients fit the criteria for severe drug-resistant epilepsy and during the study were taking other seizure medicine. There was a statistically and clinically significant median reduction in convulsive seizures of 39 percent.
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