A recent study found Cannabis to be effective in relieving acute PTSD symptoms; however, patients needed higher doses over time to alleviate anxiety, and baseline PTSD symptoms did not improve with long-term cannabis use.1 Carrie Cutler, a Washington State University assistant professor of psychology, led the study that found short-term symptoms were significantly reduced by more than half — a notable finding consistent with much of the previous research into PTSD and Cannabis.1 The study followed 400 participants who, “more than 11,000 times over a 31-month period,” collectively used an app called Strainprint, which was designed to help users determine what types of medical Cannabis works best for them.1 Even though every symptom measured — from anxiety to intrusive thoughts and even flashbacks — was reduced by over 50 percent, these symptom improvements were only temporary.
Definitive Studies Still Have Yet To Establish Cannabis As A Long-Term, Curative Treatment
While Cannabis has certainly been consistent in demonstrating user-reported symptom improvement across a variety of conditions, definitive research still fails to establish Cannabis as a curative treatment for the many conditions it treats, both physical and psychological. Studies exploring Cannabis as a treatment for PTSD have seen a resurgence in recent years, but the data is still largely preclinical, with the few human studies lacking large-scale, placebo-controlled, randomized trials.2
Neurobiological Basis For Cannabis Treatment of PTSD
Much of the current research into the neurobiological mechanisms behind why Cannabis might be an effective treatment for PTSD centers around animal models. It is known that there are high concentrations of endocannabinoid receptors (the human body’s own receptors, which Cannabis and the body’s own Cannabis-like compounds act upon) within the areas of the brain that are responsible for fear acquisition and extinction (i.e. the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus).3,4 Research has shown in mouse models that when using a gene “knock-out” method to inhibit CB1 functioning in their brains, their endocannabinoid system is disrupted and they are unable to extinguish fear.5,6 This is strong evidence that CB1 receptors (and thus, THC) is responsible, if not crucial, for fear extinction.
A Note About The Potential For CBD To Manage PTSD Symptoms
Given the fact that treating PSTD-induced anxiety is a fundamental factor in overall symptom management, it is possible that this study could have benefitted from an additional treatment arm that also supplemented with Cannabidiol, or CBD. The efficacy of CBD in the treatment of PTSD has also become an increasingly prevalent area of research, with this recent (albeit small) 2019 clinical case study also showing symptom improvement along with psychiatric care.7 Additional research more broadly supports the anxiolytic properties of CBD, as well as more specific applications in PTSD treatment. It is possible that future studies into PTSD may benefit from including CBD in the study design to assess its ability in managing anxiety and PTSD symptoms more clearly.
Closing Thoughts On New PTSD & Cannabis Research
While long-term success in attenuating baseline PTSD symptoms with Cannabis use is still debatable, the value of Cannabis in ameliorating short-term, acute PTSD symptoms should not be understated. As indicated in the study, many PTSD patients self-medicate with Cannabis, and a simple look at the prevalence of suicide and the use of more dangerous drugs of abuse in this population clearly call for better treatment for these patients. More rigorous and well-controlled clinical trials are required before completely discounting Cannabis as a long-term therapy for PTSD. This recent study, along with the other available research (both pre-clinical and clinical) establishes a good precedent for inhaled cannabis as likely being effective in treating acute PTSD symptoms. The effectiveness of long-term treatment in actually reducing baseline PTSD symptoms, however, remains to be seen.
- Cannabis temporarily relieves PTSD symptoms, study suggests. ScienceDaily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200609144458.htm.
- Abizaid, A., Merali, Z. & Anisman, H. Cannabis: A potential efficacious intervention for PTSD or simply snake oil? J. Psychiatry Neurosci. JPN 44, 75–78 (2019).
- Cannabinoid receptors in the human brain: a detailed anatomical and quantitative autoradiographic study in the fetal, neonatal and adult human brain – PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9472392/.
- Quirk, G. J. & Mueller, D. Neural mechanisms of extinction learning and retrieval. Neuropsychopharmacol. Off. Publ. Am. Coll. Neuropsychopharmacol. 33, 56–72 (2008).
- Toward a translational approach to targeting the endocannabinoid system in posttraumatic stress disorder: a critical review of preclinical research – PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25448242/.
- Cannich, A. et al. CB1 cannabinoid receptors modulate kinase and phosphatase activity during extinction of conditioned fear in mice. Learn. Mem. Cold Spring Harb. N 11, 625–632 (2004).
- Elms, L., Shannon, S., Hughes, S. & Lewis, N. Cannabidiol in the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series. J. Altern. Complement. Med. N. Y. N 25, 392–397 (2019).