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In a recent study, researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel were able to prevent rats from developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by treating them with the active compounds in marijuana, or cannabinoids.
Led by Dr. Irit Akirav from the Department of Psychology, the team used rats because of their similarity to humans in responding to trauma.
People with PTSD — a severe type of anxiety disorder — suffer from symptoms that can be set off by common triggers, also known as trauma reminders.
While PTSD is usually treated after symptoms appear, the team found that dosing rats with cannabinoids following a traumatic event could make them immune to future triggers. “In other words, cannabis made the effects of trauma reminders ‘disappear’,” explains Dr. Akirav.
The treated rats showed no symptoms of PTSD. But rats that were left untreated did, including impairments in memory extinction, changes in pain sensation and increased panic behavior.
Interestingly, the researchers found that the treatment worked by rewiring circuits of the brain involved with trauma.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence, the researchers note, suggesting marijuana can not only help manage symptoms of PTSD but also prevent symptoms from developing early on.
Despite the promising results, medical marijuana has never been studied in humans with PTSD. Hence, most doctors are unwilling to even consider it as a treatment option.
Still, researchers around the world have shifted their focus to cannabinoids as a future therapy for PTSD. Dr. Akirav’s group believes there is now enough evidence for human trials to proceed.
“The importance of this study is that it contributes to the understanding of the brain basis of the positive effect cannabis has on PTSD,” notes Dr. Akirav, “and thus supports the necessity to perform human trials to examine potential ways to prevent the development of PTSD and anxiety disorders in response to a traumatic event.”
Treating PTSD with medical marijuana is far from a new idea. In fact, PTSD sufferers are known to have higher rates of cannabis use compared to the general population. What’s more, brain imaging studies have revealed irregular cannabinoid pathways in people with PTSD, providing further support for cannabis as an effective treatment.
And despite the lack of clinical trials, many psychiatrists say they’ve witnessed patients benefit from using medical marijuana in place of other drugs.
Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist who practices in Arizona, explains that treating PTSD poses a challenge because of the complex array of symptoms. Those who suffer from the disorder are often prescribed 5 or 6 different medications at a time, she says.
“PTSD is such a complex syndrome. It’s not just flashbacks and nightmares. It’s also depression and anxiety and increased startle response and this whole array of symptoms that are not easily managed with one or two medications.”
Based on her experience with patients, Dr. Sisley believes medical marijuana holds unique promise for managing the disorder.
“The truth is that marijuana can treat the whole spectrum of PTSD symptoms with this one medication,” she explains.
“The proof is in the clinical response. We’re seeing patients who are able to walk away from a lot of their psychiatric medications and their opioids and simply manage their symptoms with one drug — marijuana.”