The use of marijuana (cannabinoids) may be helpful in treating patients who have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a new study released by the University of Haifa’s Department of Psychology. Post-traumatic stress disorder is especially a concern among war veterans.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Nearly 7.7 million Americans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at any given time, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which also notes that about 30 percent of men and women who have spent time in war zones experience the disorder. PTSD is a debilitating condition that often follows a horrifying emotional or physical event, which causes the individual to have persistent, terrifying memories and thoughts, or flashbacks, of the situation. PTSD was once referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” because of its high prevalence among war veterans.
Marijuana and PTSD study
In the study from the University of Haifa, the researchers examined the efficiency of cannabinoids as a medical treatment for coping with the symptoms of PTSD. The researchers used a synthetic form of marijuana that has properties similar to those in the natural plant, and chose a rat model.
During the first stage of the experiment, the researchers noted how long it took for rats to overcome a traumatic experience without any intervention. Briefly, the experiment involved placing some rats in a cell colored white on one side and black on the other. The rats were placed in the white area, but when they moved to the black area, which they prefer, they received a light electric shock. The researchers brought the rats to the white area over a series of days. Immediately after the rats were exposed to the shock, they stopped moving to the black area voluntarily. However, after a few days of not receiving further electric shocks in the black area, they moved there without hesitation.
During the second phase of the experiment, a second group of rats were placed on a platform after receiving the electric shock, which added stress to the traumatic situation. The rats avoided the black area for a much longer time, which showed that exposure to additional stress hinders the process of overcoming trauma.
The third phase of the experiment involved another group of rats that were exposed to the electric shock and additional stress, but before they were placed on the platform they received an injection of synthetic marijuana in the amygdala area of the brain, which is connected to emotional memory. These rats returned to the black area after the same amount of time as the first group, which indicated that the marijuana eliminated the symptoms of stress. Even when the researchers administered marijuana injections at different times to additional groups of rats, the stress symptoms did not return. When the researchers examined hormone levels in the rats during the experiment, they found that synthetic marijuana prevented the release of the hormone produced by the body during times of stress.
The University of Haifa investigators believe their results indicate that marijuana can have an important role in treating stress-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals who worry that using marijuana for PTSD may encourage illicit drug use can turn to another study in which researchers examined the relation between PTSD symptom severity and motives for marijuana use among 103 young adult marijuana users. After considering other variables, including cigarette and alcohol use, the investigators found PTSD symptom severity was significantly related to marijuana use coping motives but no other motives for its use.
Bonn-Miller MO et al. Journal of Traumatic Stress 2007 Aug; 20(4): 577-86
University of Haifa news release