Treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is difficult. Antidepressants can be effective for reducing anxiety and depression caused by PTSD but they are not helpful in making extinct the memories that are so painfully and regularly recalled. About 8% of Americans and Europeans have or will develop PTSD during their lifetimes, around 1/3 of whom will not recover. The toll on the individual and society is huge, complex, and lasting.
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PTSD is believed to be a disorder resulting from the changed or damaged fear and memory circuits of the brain that result from severe trauma. Regular recalling of memories strengthens them and adds references to them every time they are recalled, resulting in a negative spiral of flashbacks and negative associations. Some scientists think that by helping the body extinguish these references, the prevalence and strength of PTSD symptoms can be reduced
There are currently no effective treatments for the maladaptive symptoms of PTSD. The endocannabinoid system is one hopeful target for therapy because it is known to be involved in the extinction, consolidation, and retrieval of memories, in emotions, and in cognition.
It is a complex system of receptors and ligands that is believed to be essential to the maintenance of emotional stability. Existing evidence shows that administering cannabinoids can alter how the brain forms, recalls, and extinguishes memories. This could be very helpful for therapy.
About 1 in 3 people who develop PTSD do not recover from it. They suffer from intrusive flashbacks, anxiety, fear, and disrupted sleep. It can be so debilitating that a normal life is next to impossible. This untreatable population represents about 3% of the adult population of Western countries (data are not available for most countries) and represents a huge source of suffering and lost productivity.
Although most PTSD patients do get better, it is a lengthy and difficult process. Currently, there are no drugs that can help with the memories of trauma, only the resulting depression and anxiety. While some therapies have been developed recently that can help, there are no drugs that can.
In recent studies, the endocannabinoid system has been found to be intimately involved in the formation, recall, and extinction of memories. Memories are continually processed and reprocessed, with the brain choosing which will remain and which to extinguish. In PTSD, this system is dysregulated, producing regular and intrusive vivid recall of traumatic events. Preclinical data suggest that administering cannabinoids could help modulate this range of symptoms.
Administering cannabinoids usually has an anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) effect and can help maintain emotional stability. It is also thought that cannabinoids can help extinguish traumatic memories. They are therefore potentially helpful for most, if not all, of the negative symptoms of PTSD.
The data are not established yet for clinical use of cannabinoids for PTSD therapy, but many people use them nonetheless. All the evidence points to them having the right mechanistic effects to help extinguish traumatic memories and ameliorate the anxiety and fear that are so prevalent with post traumatic stress disorder.