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THC And Fear: How Marijuana May Help PTSD Patients Reduce Anxiety

Marijuana
Both the human brain and the marijuana plant produce cannabinoids, which play a role in regulating fear. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Currently, veterans and other patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are treated with anti-depressants and cognitive-behavioral therapy to help reduce the effects of PTSD, which is often caused by emotionally-damaging, traumatic events. But what if marijuana, which has already been used to treat other medical conditions such as nausea from cancer chemotherapy, HIV-induced loss of appetite, or seizures, may actually help PTSD patients reduce their anxiety?

The idea of using pot for PTSD patients isn’t new, but research is lacking. In the past year or so, veterans have even advocated for their rights to have access to medical marijuana for “therapeutic purposes,” according to the Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access (VMCA). Their efforts have largely been met with rejection, though there are a few states that allow PTSD patients the ability to use medical marijuana. Meanwhile, scientists have tested a chemical in marijuana called tetrahydrocannabinol in animals, and found that it has an effect on the part of the brain that “is critical for fear and anxiety modulation,” Andrew Holmes at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism told NPR.

In 2002, researchers in Germany found that the brain actually produces its own marijuana-like chemicals called cannabinoids, which regulate how our brains process fear. Both the human brain and the marijuana plant produce cannabinoids. Thus, scientists believed that pot could have a calming effect on mental illnesses that had to do with fear and anxiety — like PTSD.

However, these were studies mostly done in mice, not humans — except for one completed earlier this year at New York University Langone Medical Center, which focused on cannabinoid receptors (CB1 receptors). The authors of the study found that a marijuana-like drug was able to decrease anxiety in PTSD patients. "Animal studies have suggested that increasing cannibinoids in the brain helps them to forget painful events and form new memories, so they start to learn to digest what they went through and get over it," Alexander Neumeister, author of the study and director of the molecular imaging program in the departments of psychiatry and radiology at NYU School of Medicine, told Fox News. "We thought this may be relevant to PTSD."

However, though marijuana may lessen overall anxiety, its side effects may cause more harm than good for PTSD patients. “You may indeed get a reduction in anxiety,” Holmes told NPR. “But you’re also going to get all of these unwanted effects,” such as short-term memory loss, a larger appetite, and decreased motor skills.

In order to get the positive effects of marijuana, which happen to be the work of the cannabinoids, Holmes and other researchers have attempted to develop drugs that work like cannabis but without the unwanted side effects. Some of these new drugs simply work to amplify the brain’s own cannabinoids. “What’s encouraging about the effects of these endocannabinoid-acting drugs is that they may allow for long-term reductions in anxiety, in other words, weeks, if not months,” Holmes told NPR. These drugs, however, have only been tested in mice; tests in humans may not occur for several years.

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