Can CBD Reverse Brain Damage from a Birth Injury?

At first glance, the idea of giving cannabis to a newborn may seem like the last thing you should do.  However, new research studying the benefits of treating infants with brain damage with cannabidiol (CBD) offers the compelling possibility of near-total recovery.  This research has wide-reaching potential since there are more than one million babies born each year with brain injuries.

Researchers in Spain launched a clinical trial to examine the use of CBD in newborn babies who suffer from hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).   HIE is a type of brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.  The condition causes reduced oxygen supply to the brain and vital organs, and also compromises healthy blood flow.

HIE is a potentially fatal complication of a birth injury, and is the most frequent cause of infant deaths in the United States.  When babies survive HIE, they almost always have major mental and developmental deficits.

Current Brain Damage Treatment Methods

Current medical standards recommend therapeutic neonatal hypothermia as the primary treatment for HIE.  The HIE medical team reduces the baby’s body temperature to 33-34°C for the protective effects the cold has on brain tissue.  Hypothermia treatment reduces inflammation in the brain and lowers the count of free radicals produced by damaged and dying brain tissue.  In about 60 percent of cases, hypothermia prevents severe brain damage or death if administered within six hours of birth.

Other treatment methods consist of medication to control seizures, ventilator support to assist breathing, and treatments to control blood pressure.

The Promise of Cannabinoids

Dr. José Antonio Martínez-Orgado, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and head of the Neonatology Division at San Carlos Hospital in Madrid, Spain has tremendous sympathy for parents who lose their children to HIE-associated injuries.  He focuses his research on finding a cooperative treatment to pair with hypothermia in hopes of saving more babies from brain damage.

In his preclinical work, signs pointed to cannabinoids over and over again.  No matter which way the research team approached it, the benefits of cannabinoids consistently offered the best results.  Therefore, Dr. Martinez-Orgado undertook to study the compounds’ effect in animals with laboratory-produced HIE.

His research is focused mostly on CBD rather than the perhaps better-known forms of cannabis.  For obvious reasons, a non-intoxicating compound is safer for a fragile newborn’s brain.  In these preclinical studies, the researchers found that CBD:

  • Reduced brain inflammation
  • Minimized oxidative stress
  • Diminished toxicity

By seeing results in these three areas, the researchers conclude that the CBD treatment essentially reverses the HIE-related injuries.  These three factors are the major causes of brain damage and are disproportionately destructive in a newborn’s brain compared to similar levels of damage in an older child or adult.

Treating all three factors at once is what caught the attention of researchers most.  Many other attempted treatments only address one of the triad, whereas CBD shows measurable success with all three, much like hypothermia treatment does.

Despite promising results in early phases, researchers continue to face opposition.  Dr. Martinez-Orgado states,

“Maybe because it’s looked on as cannabis, we have been asked to give a substantial amount of evidence of efficacy and safety for CBD treatment that for other treatments had not been required.”

What is CBD, Exactly?

CBD is a compound found in the flower of the cannabis plant.  It occurs naturally and the oil has many therapeutic uses.  CBD is a non-addictive substance that is increasingly the subject of research and clinical studies worldwide.

The obstacle CBD faces to mainstream acceptance is, of course, its inseparable connection to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating compound found in marijuana.  Unlike THC, CBD does not cause an intoxicated feeling because, though the two compounds derive from the same plant, they are chemically distinct and affect the receptors in the brain differently.

Game-Changing Results for Brain Damage

Faced with unpopular associations with THC, Dr.  Martinez-Orgado’s research gained little traction until their most recently published preclinical study garnered widespread attention.  In that study, the team studied CBD in conjunction with hypothermia treatment in piglets with HIE-associated brain damage, and the results were extraordinary.

In the trial, the brain damaged animals received three doses of purified CBD intravenously after already receiving hypothermia treatment.  The combined treatments reduced brain damage by almost 100 percent.

Alone, neither of the treatments could produce such dramatic results.  However, research shows the effects of hypothermia and CBD together to be truly remarkable.

Fascinating results from this most recent study have opened the way for human clinical trials that are now taking place in hospitals in Spain and the United Kingdom.   Newborns with brain damage who are part of the clinical trials will be treated by hypothermia, hypothermia and CBD, or hypothermia and a placebo.

Obstacles to Continuing Research

For safety, the CBD must be highly purified.  Newborn babies may not tolerate even small amounts of other cannabinoid compounds intravenously.  The purity of the CBD is not the only obstacle that doctors will face clinical trials begin.  Working with human babies will carry a moral weight that will make any failures more impactful than in animal trials.  Plus, there will be a lot of unpredictable factors in treating real patients that researchers did not experience in controlled preclinical trials.

One unpredictable factor is the timing of hypoxic-ischemic injuries.  In the clinical studies on animals, the researchers has control, and therefore, knew exactly when the oxygen deprivation occurred.  In human births, sometimes there is no way to know when the oxygen deprivation begins.

Moreover, hypothermic therapy is only successful within six hours of birth.  However, researchers are optimistic that pairing hypothermia with CBD can widen the window of opportunity for successful therapies.  One of the preclinical studies in mice showed meaningful effects from CBD even when administered up to 24 hours after birth.

Would you Agree to CBD Treatment?

It will be at least 18 months before researchers have meaningful data on reversing brain damage in infants with HIE.  It is interesting to note that CBD studies now focus on the most vulnerable class of patients – newborn babies.

As the studies related to brain damage and CBD continue, you can count on Birth Injury Guide to keep you informed.  If you have questions about a birth injury or brain damage your child has suffered, contact us to learn more.  You can call Birth Injury Guide at 1-877-415-6603, or complete our online form to get started.


Meagan Cline

Written By Meagan Cline

Meagan Cline is a professional legal researcher and writer. She lends her expertise to the team at Birth Injury Guide to provide up-to-date and relevant content that clients can count on.