Murdoch Children's Research Institute is running a pilot study to investigate using medicinal cannabis instead of conventional medication when treating severe behaviour problems in intellectually disabled children.

Associate Professor of Paediatrics Daryl Efron said more than 50,000 Australian youth have an intellectual disability, and a percentage suffer dangerous behavioural problems, including physical aggression and self-harm.

"The medications most often prescribed for these children are stimulants, antidepressants and anti-psychotics, which all carry a risk of serious side-effects," said A/Prof Efron.

"There is little research into new drugs to help these children, but medicinal cannabis has been shown to be effective to treat other medical conditions, including some severe epilepsies in children, and chemotherapy side effects and multiple sclerosis in adults."

A/Prof Efron said he had heard anecdotal evidence from parents that their children were less physically aggressive and did not self-harm after taking unregulated medicinal cannabis, but there had never been a medical, peer-reviewed trial investigating this claim.

"As a paediatrician, parents often ask me if medicinal cannabis would help their children," he said. "But I am unable to advise on the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis for children with severe behavioural problems, as there has been no research in the field.

"We hope to fill that void with some quality research."

The cannabis plant produces between 80 and 100 cannabinoid chemicals. The two main cannabinoids with therapeutic benefits are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC has strong psychoactive effects, meaning it makes a person 'high', whereas CBD has no psychoactive effects.

A/Prof Efron said only CBD is being given to children taking part in the trial.

A/Prof Efron said the first pilot study of ten people is not testing the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis, but is a

"The ten participants, aged eight to 16, are being divided into placebo and control groups," he said. "Participants receive a medicinal cannabis oral solution or the placebo."

small-scale preliminary study exploring the practicalities, feasibility, time and

cost of a large-scale trial.

The pilot study is using medical-quality cannabis – the Tilray C100 oral solution, manufactured in Canada.

A/Prof Efron is also applying to the National Health Medical Research Council for funding for a larger trial into the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis.

Available for interview:

  • A/Prof Daryl Efron