As cannabis legislation gradually increases the accessibility of marijuana throughout the nation, more attention is being drawn to the benefits of medical marijuana — and under that umbrella, the effects of medical marijuana on patients suffering from PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a brutal condition that affects millions of lives. Trauma can include (but is not limited to) traumatic events while serving in the military, sexual assault, physical assault, catastrophic events, and other forms of abuse. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 7-8% of people will experience PTSD in their lifetime, and roughly 8 million people will develop PTSD at some point in a given year. The effects of PTSD are diverse, ranging from symptoms like nightmares and anxiety to suicide or violence. In recent decades, PTSD patients have reported that cannabis helps relieve many of their symptoms. A handful of studies have been conducted on these claims — notably, one that examines the link between marijuana and a part of the brain called the amygdala, and one that investigates the hypothesis that cannabis can help “overwrite” traumatic memories.
Researchers from Wayne State published a study in the journal Psychopharmacology on the link between cannabis use and changes in threat-processing in the amygdala, a region of the brain linked to emotional responses. An overactive amygdala, which is a feature found in PTSD patients, triggers side effects such as excessive fear, anxiety, and panic attacks. Previous studies have shown that low doses of THC, a cannabinoid found in marijuana, can help reduce the frequency of threat-related amygdala activation. In this experiment, the researchers found that THC reduced the level of amygdala activity during threat processing in adult patients with PTSD. This finding could help expand the medical marijuana market for war veterans and others who have experienced overwhelming trauma. In addition, it could be a useful ally in convincing non-legal states to pass new legislation allowing medical cannabis consumption.
In another study published in BMC Psychology by Brazil’s Federal University at Parana, researchers explored the link between THC and distressing memories. They hypothesized that cannabis could help decrease the level of intensity attached to particularly traumatic events in patients with PTSD. One interesting side effect of PTSD is that it impairs extinction learning, a term used to define gradual detachment of fear with traumatic associations — for example, associating masked people with guns. Additionally, people with PTSD often have impaired endocannabinoid systems. This study found that THC has the unique ability to kickstart the extinction learning process in PTSD patients. In other words, it allows them to slowly decrease memory-related anxiety responses. This finding establishes cannabis as a valuable tool in helping to suppress aversive memories in the medical marijuana field.
Further studies need to be conducted on the relationship between cannabis and PTSD since the field is relatively recent. However, current research is incredibly promising, and marijuana is slowly growing its reputation as a beneficial part of the medical field rather than a threat to be outlawed.
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