Over the past two decades, trauma-focused psychotherapies for PTSD have been shown to outperform more traditional supportive psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy and have become the first line treatment for PTSD. Despite these advances, trauma focused treatments such as prolonged exposure therapy (PE) are associated with high rates of treatment refusal, and among those who do enter treatment, approximately 25% drop-out. These data highlight the need to develop PTSD treatment strategies that are both effective and more palatable to patients.
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A second study, from researchers at Brazil’s Federal University of Parana, explored another potential way that cannabis could help those with PTSD – extinguishing the intensity associated with memories of their trauma. This mode of treating PTSD was first hypothesized by Yale associate professor of psychiatry R. Andrew Sewell who suggested that cannabis may be able to help PTSD patients “overwrite” traumatic memories with new memories in a process called ‘extinction learning’.
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Sewell theorized that cannabis might be able to jump start this process – allowing those with PTSD to access extinction learning like their healthy counterparts, and curing the PTSD by helping them to move on from their trauma. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete his research before he unexpectedly passed away in 2013.
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The Wayne State University study took on this challenge, and studied the amygdala responses in three groups of participants – healthy controls who had not been exposed to trauma, trauma exposed adults without PTSD and trauma exposed adults with PTSD. Using a randomized, double-blind procedure, the 71 participants were either given a low dose of THC or a placebo. Then they were exposed to threatening stimuli and their amygdala responses were recorded.
One study, from researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, looked at how cannabis use impacts the amygdala response of those dealing with trauma related anxiety, such as PTSD. Previous research has shown that cannabis has the potential to reduce anxiety, or even prevent heightened anxiety in threatening situations. But up to this point, no studies had investigated this response in adults dealing with trauma – such as those with PTSD.
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Now, new research suggests the biological mechanisms behind this therapeutic effect.
Those exposed to THC had lowered threat-related amygdala reactivity.