Endocannabinoid concentrations in human hair linked to severity of PTSD symptoms

A class of chemicals in the brain related to those found naturally in marijuana may play a role in managing the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to a study to be published in Psychoneuroendicrinology.

The endocannabinoid system involves transmission and reception of a family of brain chemicals believed to be involved in a number of neural processes related to memory and stress regulation. Because this system is impacted by exposure to some of the key chemicals found in marijuana, conditions involving the endocannabinoid system may be good candidates for treatment with its use.

PTSD is a growing public health concern in many societies, as risk of exposure increases due to events like war and terrorism, and as public knowledge of its impacts on victims and their families increases. Because the key problems associated with PTSD are related to memory (specifically, an inability to ignore intrusive traumatic memories) and stress, there has been speculation that the endocannabinoid system might be involved in the condition.

A study led by Sarah Wilker, of Ulm University, investigated this possibility by comparing patterns of endocannabinoid activity in survivors of the Ugandan civil war with that in healthy control participants who were not exposed to traumatic experiences. Hair samples were taken and chemically analyzed, because hair retains traces of endocannabinoid exposure that is more stable and reliable than that provided by a test of levels in the blood.

Victims of trauma had significantly lower levels of endocannabinoid concentration in their hair samples than those who were not at risk of PTSD. More importantly, among those who had been exposed to trauma, there was a relationship between higher endocannabinoid concentration and lower symptomology related to PTSD.

This suggests that low endocannabinoid activity may be consequence of traumatic experiences. That pattern of low activity in this key brain system may in turn contribute to the memory and stress symptoms associated with PTSD.

The study authors conclude that there may be potential for developing drug therapy for sufferers of PTSD based on stimulation of the endocannabinoid system. Although this research remains several steps removed from suggesting any direct therapeutic benefits of marijuana use for PTSD, it would appear to be a potentially promising avenue for future study.

One day, it may be possible to determine that the chemical compounds found in marijuana are well-suited to compensating for the deficits in brain chemical activity responsible for the most harmful effects of PTSD.