Study Finds Cannabinoid Plays Key Role in PTSD and Fear Extinction

The ability to forget fear and past trauma is vital in helping us to live normal lives. If every ounce of fear that has ever pulsed through our veins was remembered, we would quite literally cease functioning.

PTSD

One of the hallmark signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is impaired fear extinction – the process that allows our brains to forget traumatic events.

A study out of Leiden University in the Netherlands has explored anandamide, a cannabinoid naturally produced in the human body, and how it may affect fear extinction. This was done by a new innovative technique that inhibits anandamide production in the brain.

A Treatment for PTSD

The study may have a profound effect on the use of cannabis for PTSD treatment. Military veterans and other trauma survivors often use medical cannabis to manage their PTSD. However, scientists are still exploring the mechanism involved in the healing process.

Working with the Body

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is how THC gets you high. When THC binds to a cannabinoid receptor (CB1), you get high. The bonding of this molecule with a different receptor can have more subtle effects, like immune modulation.

The discovery of these receptors in the ’90s led to the discovery of the compounds in our body that stimulate these naturally.

Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss, is one of the most studied endocannabinoids, responsible for runner’s high, post-coital bliss, and is more affectionately known as the bliss molecule. 

The high is short lived, and this is due to the relationship between anandamide and a fatty acid called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). There is a lot of research that shows that reducing FAAH expression may make the feel-good effects of anandamide last longer.

Controlling Stress and Aversive Memories

The study conducted involved identifying a chemical that would inhibit anandamide production to test what role it plays in fear extinction.

Researchers compared the behaviour of normal mice to anandamide-suppressed mice. They found those whose anandamide production had been inhibited were more stressed out, evidenced by higher cortisol levels. These mice held onto fear much longer than the normal mice.

The study is the first of its kind to prove that lowering anandamide levels has negative consequences on emotional behaviour. This could explain why PTSD develops – brains that don’t produce enough anandamide struggle to remain emotionally balanced. It could also explain why flashbacks feel so visceral to people who suffer from PTSD, because they quite literally lack the mechanism to forgot traumatic memories.

This discovery may help us understand why cannabis and its ability to mimic the effects of anandamide could help PTSD patients.

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