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Cannabinoids: A Treatment For PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be defined as an entirely natural, emotional response to a frightening or dangerous experience that involves actual or threatened harm to oneself or others. Even though the situation itself may have passed, for sufferers, the thoughts or memories of such events deeply affect their lives. The symptoms are wide-ranging, and include:

  • Re-living the event over and over
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Getting angry easily

The effects may not emerge for years, which makes it’s a difficult illness to diagnose and treat. However, we may be on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to a study headed up by University of British Columbia (UBC) scientist Dr. Zach Walsh.

An Associate Professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology, Dr. Walsh received a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago Medical School/Rosalind Franklin University. He’s a registered clinical psychologist and his research is backed by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Health Canada, BC Interior Health Authority, and the American Psychological Association. In addition to this, he sits on the board of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

Testing Beyond the Lab

Dr. Walsh is carrying out a study on the efficacy of vaporized cannabis in combatting treatment-resistant PTSD. Sponsored by Tilray, the triple-blind study is measuring the effects of varying potencies of cannabis on 42 participants. Speaking exclusively to Cannabis Retailer, Dr. Walsh expanded on the methods used in the trial.

He says, “It’s a crossover design so we’re testing two different strains of cannabis as well as a placebo condition. It’s an ad-lib protocol so people can take the cannabis home and use it as they like. We also provide them with a vaporizer to use. It’s one of the first studies to look at whole plant vaporized cannabis, which is one of the things I’m excited about. It’s that naturalistic element. Instead of bringing people into the lab and giving them cannabis and testing it right away, we’re just looking at how people are responding in an environment similar to what many medical cannabis users would be doing, which is vaporizing the whole plant. Another thing that we think is interesting about the study is that we’re comparing THC-dominant to balanced THC/CBD strains of cannabis, which is also something that I know cannabis users and producers are interested in, but that hasn’t been done a whole lot in the empirical literature.”

According to Dr. Walsh, there is some scientific evidence that there are differences in the brains of people who do and don’t have PTSD, so there is some application that the endocannabinoid system is involved in the pathology of the illness. This is backed up by some animal studies that suggest that fear alerting and the maintenance of fearful responses can be impacted by cannabinoids.

Why is There a Need for a Study?

Dr. Walsh cites a study that scrutinized the endocannabinoid levels of survivors of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. He says, “They found differences in the circulating levels of endocannabinoids, suggesting that those levels can be protective of determining who develops PTSD. An area of interest for researchers is what differentiates those who do and don’t develop the symptoms after being exposed to traumatic events, and it looks like the differences in the endocannabinoid system might be part of that puzzle. So, can we intervene at the level of the endocannabinoid system to address trauma? It becomes the interesting next question.”

As the study is ongoing, Dr. Walsh can’t discuss findings quite yet, but he has heard of people reporting good effects in the suppression of nightmares and improvement of sleep. “There’s been a study amongst prisoners, as there are high levels of PTSD in incarcerated populations. It found good results of people improving their sleep, improving quality of life, and reducing nightmares by using cannabis”, he reports.

Dr. Walsh thinks that this may be one of the mechanisms where cannabis could help with PTSD, and as it may have an anti-anxiety effect, it could make people less reactive to stress during the day. These two improvements can go a long way to getting sufferers on a good footing, especially when used with some other therapies.

Will Legalization Help?

The legalization of recreational cannabis could help the study along. Dr. Walsh talks of how there is duplication and added complexity with regards to securely storing and accounting for the cannabis used, but this may become more streamlined after October 17. It also means having easier access to good quality cannabis through a licensed producer. One of the biggest areas of change could be the number of funding bodies that step forward. He explains, “Legalization has reduced a lot of the stigma and increased interest [in researching cannabis]. It seems to be creeping up on the list of priorities for funding agencies, so I think this will make it easier to conduct research.”

Although the signs are positive, we will have a better idea when Dr. Walsh’s study is completed next year and the results are published. Looking beyond this, is it possible that certain cannabinoids can be used as a prophylactic against PTSD? In other words, will we be able to pre-treat the illness? Sadly, we’re nowhere near that answer, but Dr. Walsh is hopeful, and says, “We need to see where the research leads. How do we refine the medicines and whom do they work for? These are questions being actively investigated. There’s so much to do and after being in the prohibition system so long, the research will start catching up. We’ve really been following the leads of patients for a long time and if we continue to do that we’ll continue to refine our understanding and get to know just what this plant can do. I’m looking forward to the coming decades as we uncover some of the mysteries of the interaction between humans and cannabis.”