New Research Reveals Why Cannabis Helps PTSD Sufferers
Amy Rising, an Air Force veteran, smokes medical marijuana. Rising has been working on legislation . [+] for veterans’ freedom to treat PTSD with medical cannabis. (Photo by Kevin Cook for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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PTSD patients have been saying for years that cannabis helps with their PTSD. This debilitating condition causes chronic problems like nightmares, panic attacks, hypervigilance, detachment from others, overwhelming emotions, and self-destructive behavior. In some cases, these overwhelming symptoms can even lead to suicide. And while research on the topic has been somewhat inconclusive, many PTSD patients continue to report that cannabis does help.
Now, new research suggests the biological mechanisms behind this therapeutic effect.
Two recent studies point to the way that cannabinoids may help treat PTSD. One shows how cannabis can reduce activity in the amygdala – a part of the brain associated with fear responses to threats. Meanwhile, another suggests that the plant’s cannabinoids could play a role in extinguishing traumatic memories. Both effects could be therapeutic for those suffering from PTSD – according to recent studies.
One study, from researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, looked at how cannabis use impacts the amygdala response of those dealing with trauma related anxiety, such as PTSD. Previous research has shown that cannabis has the potential to reduce anxiety, or even prevent heightened anxiety in threatening situations. But up to this point, no studies had investigated this response in adults dealing with trauma – such as those with PTSD.
The Wayne State University study took on this challenge, and studied the amygdala responses in three groups of participants – healthy controls who had not been exposed to trauma, trauma exposed adults without PTSD and trauma exposed adults with PTSD. Using a randomized, double-blind procedure, the 71 participants were either given a low dose of THC or a placebo. Then they were exposed to threatening stimuli and their amygdala responses were recorded.
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Those exposed to THC had lowered threat-related amygdala reactivity.
This means that those who took low doses of THC showed measurable signs of reduced fear and anxiety in situations designed to trigger fear. Since these results were found in all three groups, it suggests that even those with PTSD were able to experience less fear with THC in their system.
DENVER, CO – JULY 15: The Colorado Board of Health had a rule making hearing about people with . [+] PTSD qualifying for medical marijuana at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offices in Denver. Christopher Latona, center, and his dad Mike Latona, left, both testified in support of approving medical marijuana for PTSD which Christopher has suffered from since returning from his US. Army service in Afghanistan. They were photographed on Wednesday July 15, 2015. The board voted 6-2 not to approve the change. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images )
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The authors conclude that the research suggests “that THC modulates threat-related processing in trauma-exposed individuals with PTSD” and add that the drug “may prove advantageous as a pharmacological approach to treating stress- and trauma-related psychopathology.”
A second study, from researchers at Brazil’s Federal University of Parana, explored another potential way that cannabis could help those with PTSD – extinguishing the intensity associated with memories of their trauma. This mode of treating PTSD was first hypothesized by Yale associate professor of psychiatry R. Andrew Sewell who suggested that cannabis may be able to help PTSD patients “overwrite” traumatic memories with new memories in a process called ‘extinction learning’.
In an interview with East Bay Express, Sewell explained that the extinction learning process usually helps trauma resolve on its own. He gave the example of an Iraq War Veteran who gets PTSD symptoms while driving under bridges – after dodging explosives thrown down from bridges during the war. “Suppose some part of your reptile brain thinks if you walk under a bridge you’re going to die,” Sewell explained “life becomes very hard.”
Army veteran Kevin Grimsinger 42 and other vet’s and supporters from Sensible Colorado submit a . [+] petition to add PTSD to the list of conditions approved for the use of medical marijuana to Mark Salley the communications director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Wednesday July 7th, 2010. Joe Amon, The Denver Post (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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For most who experience traumatic incidents, these fears subside after 6 months or so because of the extinction learning process. New memories of the traumatic trigger form and override the old. Someone with a traumatic experience of explosives being dropped from bridges, may at first feel terrified as they approach any bridge – with traumatic memories flooding their mind. But after months of nothing bad happening around bridges, most will begin to feel bridges are less dangerous, as many memories of driving under bridges safely accumulate. The old memories still linger, but they don’t cause the increase in fear when the trigger (like the bridge) is present. So while most with trauma remember the traumatic incidents, those memories no longer trigger intense fear.
But for those with PTSD, extinction learning doesn’t happen. The trauma attached to the old memories continues to cause problems.
Still, Sewell believed that cannabis could help. Cannabis stimulates CB1 – a receptor in the endocannabinoid system that Sewell says has improved extinction learning in animal studies. Interestingly, those with PTSD show impaired functioning of the endocannabinoid system – which may be why they are unable to go through the normal extinction learning process.
Sewell theorized that cannabis might be able to jump start this process – allowing those with PTSD to access extinction learning like their healthy counterparts, and curing the PTSD by helping them to move on from their trauma. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete his research before he unexpectedly passed away in 2013.
The researchers found that cannabis could help. Low doses of the cannabinoid THC or THC combined with another cannabinoid CBD were both able to enhance the extinction rate for challenging memories – and reduce overall anxiety responses. From their study, it seems that THC drives the extinction rate improvements, while CBD can help alleviate potential side effects from higher doses of THC.
The authors conclude that the current evidence from both healthy humans and PTSD patients suggests that these forms of cannabis “suppress anxiety and aversive memory expression without producing significant adverse effects.”
These studies provide some answers about why cannabis is helping PTSD patients feel better – both immediately and in the long run. Still, future studies may help clarify a range of questions about how and when to use cannabis effectively for PTSD, and whether there are risk factors associated with using the drug for this condition.
Medical Marijuana Research
At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we’re committed to participating in high-quality research, and we are working with the state of Colorado and the federal government to conduct trials related to marijuana and its derivatives.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has awarded us funds to study marijuana use in the treatment and management of a variety of pediatric conditions, including: epilepsy, neuro-oncology conditions, inflammatory bowel disease, as well as the impact of marijuana usage by pregnant mothers on their children.
For breastfeeding mothers who smoke marijuana, research is revealing concerning findings. Among them, the amount of THC excreted in breast milk and how long it lasts.
Children’s Hospital Colorado physicians would like to learn more about medical marijuana in children with brain and spine tumors. Get information on volunteer requirements, compensation and how to participate.
What our research means for kids
Marijuana in breast milk
- A multidisciplinary team of researchers at Children’s Colorado, in partnership with the University of Colorado School of Medicine and University of Colorado Hospital, is investigating the effect of marijuana in breast milk.
- Specifically, we’re researching how delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) presents in breast milk, in what concentrations and for how long. This would help determine toxicity levels for pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants.
- Commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control, this study is an early foray into an area of intense public inquiry with few definitive answers.
Medical marijuana for inflammatory bowel disease
- In the Digestive Health Institute, we’re completing CDPHE-funded studies to assess the possible benefits of medical marijuana use in adolescents and young adults with inflammatory bowel disease.
- Our Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center team has collected data on usage patterns, motivations and perceptions of benefit and harm.
- In addition, they have obtained blood samples for measuring immune function, cannabinoid levels and endocannabinoids.
Medical marijuana for brain and spine tumors
- Our neuro-oncology research and clinical trials seek to determine the impact of medical marijuana use on the quality of life in pediatric patients.
- These research efforts include the treatment of brain and spine tumors and the management of side effects of common treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.
Medical marijuana and CBD for epilepsy and tuberous sclerosis complex
The Neuroscience Institute is conducting trials to study the use of medical marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD) in the treatment and management of epilepsy and tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). Researchers are currently engaged in an FDA-approved, multicenter study to learn more about cannabidiol and whether it can help reduce the frequency of uncontrolled seizures and is safe to use as an add-on therapy for pediatric patients with TSC.
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