The Autism-Psychosis Continuum Conundrum: Exploring the Role of the Endocannabinoid System

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 May 5;19(9):5616. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19095616.


Evidence indicates shared physiopathological mechanisms between autism and psychosis. In this regard, the endocannabinoid system has been suggested to modulate neural circuits during the early stage of neurodevelopment, with implications for both autism and psychosis. Nevertheless, such potential common markers of disease have been investigated in both autism and psychosis spectrum disorders, without considering the conundrum of differentiating the two groups of conditions in terms of diagnosis and treatment. Here, we systematically review all human and animal studies examining the endocannabinoid system and its biobehavioral correlates in the association between autism and psychosis. Studies indicate overlapping biobehavioral aberrancies between autism and schizophrenia, subject to correction by modulation of the endocannabinoid system. In addition, common cannabinoid-based pharmacological strategies have been identified, exerting epigenetic effects across genes controlling neural mechanisms shared between autism and schizophrenia. Interestingly, a developmental and transgenerational trajectory between autism and schizophrenia is supported by evidence that exogenous alteration of the endocannabinoid system promotes progression to inheritable psychosis phenotypes in the context of biobehavioral autism vulnerability. However, evidence for a diametral association between autism and psychosis is scant. Several clinical implications follow from evidence of a developmental continuum between autism and psychosis as a function of the endocannabinoid system dysregulation.

Keywords: cannabidiol; cannabis; delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol; mental health; neurodevelopment.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autistic Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Cannabinoids*
  • Endocannabinoids / physiology
  • Endocannabinoids / therapeutic use
  • Psychotic Disorders*
  • Schizophrenia* / drug therapy
  • Schizophrenia* / epidemiology


  • Cannabinoids
  • Endocannabinoids

Grant support

This research received no external funding.