PTSD, the brain and endocannibinoids

One of the puzzles about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is why some people experience it after a traumatic event and others don’t.

It’s easy to assume that it’s about resilience: that some people have personalities better designed to cope with traumatic situations than others. But that’s a rather complacent attitude towards the problem that doesn’t tell us very much about the mechanisms behind PTSD.

So I was interested to read about a study in the US that will look at the biological mechanisms affecting the development of PTSD.

Research has suggested that the endocannabinoid signalling system (ECSS) in the brain dampens the stress response during a traumatic event. The new study, at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), will look at the role of ECSS in the development of PTSD. The hypothesis is that individuals with high ECSS activity will be less likely to experience PTSD after a trauma.

Of course, that does raise additional questions: why would some individuals have higher ECSS activity than others? And assuming the relationship is real, what’s the cause and effect relationship here – does having higher ECSS activity prevent the person having PTSD? Or is there some other factor that makes the person less susceptible to PTSD and then triggers the ECSS activity?

And if the relationship is proven to exist, we’d want to know: is there a way of artificially triggering higher ECSS activity – and, if so, could that prevent the onset of PTSD symptoms? There’s also an ethical question about whether it would be acceptable to do that – although presumably such questions are a long way in the future.

Incidentally, the “cannabinoid” element of “endocannibinoid” is not a coincidence: there is a relationship with cannabis.

The body produces cannabinoids that interact with receptors in the brain to control things like how we feel and how we react in certain situations. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, alters the ability of the natural cannabinoids to do their job – which is why marijuana can slow down reaction times or disrupt a person’s ability to remember something that’s just happened.

And it’s also why some people have found marijuana helps alleviate their PTSD symptoms – but that’s one for another post.

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