The endocannabinoid system as a putative target for the development of novel drugs for the treatment of psychiatric illnesses

pubmed logo

“Cannabis is well established to impact affective states, emotion and perceptual processing, primarily through its interactions with the endocannabinoid system. While cannabis use is quite prevalent in many individuals afflicted with psychiatric illnesses, there is considerable controversy as to whether cannabis may worsen these conditions or provide some form of therapeutic benefit. The development of pharmacological agents which interact with components of the endocannabinoid system in more localized and discrete ways then via phytocannabinoids found in cannabis, has allowed the investigation if direct targeting of the endocannabinoid system itself may represent a novel approach to treat psychiatric illness without the potential untoward side effects associated with cannabis. Herein we review the current body of literature regarding the various pharmacological tools that have been developed to target the endocannabinoid system, their impact in preclinical models of psychiatric illness and the recent data emerging of their utilization in clinical trials for psychiatric illnesses, with a specific focus on substance use disorders, trauma-related disorders, and autism. We highlight several candidate drugs which target endocannabinoid function, particularly inhibitors of endocannabinoid metabolism or modulators of cannabinoid receptor signaling, which have emerged as potential candidates for the treatment of psychiatric conditions, particularly substance use disorder, anxiety and trauma-related disorders and autism spectrum disorders. Although there needs to be ongoing clinical work to establish the potential utility of endocannabinoid-based drugs for the treatment of psychiatric illnesses, the current data available is quite promising and shows indications of several potential candidate diseases which may benefit from this approach.”

The Effectiveness and Adverse Events of Cannabidiol and Tetrahydrocannabinol Used in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in a PTSD Subpopulation: An Interim Analysis of an Observational Study

pubmed logo

“Background: Anxiety is a condition for which current treatments are often limited by adverse events (AEs). Components of medicinal cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), have been proposed as potential treatments for anxiety disorders, specifically posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Objective: To evaluate quality-of-life outcomes after treatment with various cannabis formulations to determine the effectiveness and associated AEs. 

Methods: An interim analysis of data collected between September 2018 and June 2021 from the CA Clinics Observational Study. Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System-29 survey scores of 198 participants with an anxiety disorder were compared at baseline and after treatment with medicinal cannabis. The data of 568 anxiety participants were also analyzed to examine the AEs they experienced by the Medical Dictionary for Regulatory Activities organ system class. 

Results: The median doses taken were 50.0 mg/day for CBD and 4.4 mg/day for THC. The total participant sample reported significantly improved anxiety, depression, fatigue, and ability to take part in social roles and activities. Those who were diagnosed with PTSD (n = 57) reported significantly improved anxiety, depression, fatigue, and social abilities. The most common AEs reported across the whole participant cohort were dry mouth (32.6%), somnolence (31.3%), and fatigue (18.5%), but incidence varied with different cannabis formulations. The inclusion of THC in a formulation was significantly associated with experiencing gastrointestinal AEs; specifically dry mouth and nausea. 

Conclusions: Formulations of cannabis significantly improved anxiety, depression, fatigue, and the ability to participate in social activities in participants with anxiety disorders. The AEs experienced by participants are consistent with those in other studies.”

Cannabinoid modulation of corticolimbic activation during extinction learning and fear renewal in adults with posttraumatic stress disorder

Neurobiology of Learning and Memory

“Failure to successfully extinguish fear is a hallmark of trauma-related disorders, like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is also characterized by dysfunctional corticolimbic activation and connectivity.

The endocannabinoid system is a putative system to target for rescuing these behavioral and neural deficits. In healthy adults, acute, low-dose delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) facilitates fear extinction and increases cortico-limbic activation and connectivity in response to threat.

The present study determines the effect of acute, low-dose THC on fear-related brain activation and connectivity during fear extinction in trauma-exposed adults with (PTSD = 19) and without PTSD [trauma-exposed controls (TEC) = 26] and non-trauma-exposed [healthy controls (HC) = 26]. We used a Pavlovian fear conditioning and extinction paradigm, where we measured concurrent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral responses (i.e., skin conductance responding and expectancy ratings). Using a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design, N = 71 subjects were randomized to receive placebo (PBO, n = 37) or THC (n = 34) prior to fear extinction learning.

During early extinction learning, individuals with PTSD given THC had greater vmPFC activation than their TEC counterparts. During a test of the return of fear (i.e., renewal), HC and individuals with PTSD given THC had greater vmPFC activation compared to TEC. Individuals with PTSD given THC also had greater amygdala activation compared to those given PBO. We found no effects of trauma group or THC on behavioral fear indices during extinction learning, recall, and fear renewal.

These data suggest that low dose, oral THC can affect neural indices of fear learning and memory in adults with trauma-exposure; this may be beneficial for future therapeutic interventions seeking to improve fear extinction learning and memory.”

Medical cannabis for treatment-resistant combat PTSD

pubmed logo

“Targeting the endocannabinoid system may have a role in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, few studies have examined the effectiveness of cannabis on symptoms of PTSD, and more research is needed to ascertain cannabis’ effectiveness.

In this retrospective naturalistic study, we followed 14 relatively mature (32-68 years of age), treatment-resistant, chronic combat post-traumatic patients who remained severely symptomatic despite treatment with many lines of conventional treatment prior to receiving medicinal cannabis.

Our findings show that total sleep score, subjective sleep quality, and sleep duration significantly improved (p < 0.01). Total PTSD symptom score and its subdomains (intrusiveness, avoidance, and alertness) showed improvement (p < 0.05). However, there was no improvement in the frequency of nightmares (p = 0.27). The mean follow-up time was 1.1 ± 0.8 years (range of 0.5 to 3 years).”

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first published study examining long-term cannabis efficacy in chronic combat treatment-resistant PTSD patients. The study we conducted is consistent with existing literature which indicates a decrease in PTSD symptoms under medical cannabis treatment.”

Potential Utility of Cannabidiol in Stress-Related Disorders

View details for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research cover image

“Background: The endocannabinoid (eCB) system plays an important role in homeostatic regulation of anxiety and stress responses; however, the eCB system can be disrupted following traumatic stressors. Additionally, traumatic or chronic stressors that occur during adulthood or early life can cause long-lasting disturbances in the eCB system. These alterations interfere with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function and may be involved in lifelong increased fear and anxiety behaviors as well as increased risk for development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Methods: This review focuses on the implications of trauma and significant stressors on eCB functionality and neural pathways, both in adolescence and into adulthood, as well as the current state of testing for CBD efficacy in treating pediatric and adult patients suffering from stress-induced eCB dysregulation. Articles were searched via Pubmed and included studies examining eCB modulation of stress-related disorders in both clinical settings and preclinical models. 

Conclusion: Given the potential for lifelong alterations in eCB signaling that can mediate stress responsiveness, consideration of pharmaceutical or nutraceutical agents that impact eCB targets may improve clinical outcomes in stress-related disorders. However, caution may be warranted in utilization of medicinal cannabinoid products that contain delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol due to pronounced euphorigenic effects and potential to exacerbate stress-related behaviors. Other cannabinoid products, such as cannabidiol (CBD), have shown promise in reducing stress-related behaviors in pre-clinical models. Overall, pre-clinical evidence supports CBD as a potential treatment for stress or anxiety disorders resulting from previously stressful events, particularly by reducing fearful behavior and promoting extinction of contextual fear memories, which are hallmarks of PTSD. However, very limited clinical research has been conducted examining the potential effectiveness of CBD in this regard and should be examined further.”

Does cannabis use predict aggressive or violent behavior in psychiatric populations? A systematic review

Publication Cover

“Background: Despite an increase in information evaluating the therapeutic and adverse effects of cannabinoids, many potentially important clinical correlates, including violence or aggression, have not been adequately investigated.Objectives: In this systematic review, we examine the published evidence for the relationship between cannabis and aggression or violence in individuals with psychiatric disorders.Methods: Following PRISMA guidelines, articles in English were searched on PubMed, Google Scholar, MEDLINE, and PsycINFO from database inception to January 2022. Data for aggression and violence in people with psychiatric diagnoses were identified during the searches.Results: Of 391 papers identified within the initial search, 15 studies met inclusion criteria. Cross-sectional associations between cannabis use and aggression or violence in samples with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were found. Moreover, a longitudinal association between cannabis use and violence and aggression was observed in psychotic-spectrum disorders. However, the presence of uncontrolled confounding factors in the majority of included studies precludes any causal conclusions.Conclusion: Although cannabis use is associated with aggression or violence in individuals with PTSD or psychotic-spectrum disorders, causal conclusions cannot be drawn due to methodological limitations observed in the current literature. Well-controlled, longitudinal studies are needed to ascertain whether cannabis plays a causal role on subsequent violence or aggression in mental health disorders.”

Social stress under binge-like alcohol withdrawal in adolescence: evidence of cannabidiol effect on maladaptive plasticity in rats

Psychological Medicine

“Background: Alcohol binge drinking may compromise the functioning of the nucleus accumbens (NAc), i.e. the neural hub for processing reward and aversive responses.

Methods: As socially stressful events pose particular challenges at developmental stages, this research applied the resident-intruder paradigm as a model of social stress, to highlight behavioural neuroendocrine and molecular maladaptive plasticity in rats at withdrawal from binge-like alcohol exposure in adolescence. In search of a rescue agent, cannabidiol (CBD) was selected due to its favourable effects on alcohol- and stress-related harms.

Results: Binge-like alcohol exposed intruder rats displayed a compromised defensive behaviour against the resident and a blunted response of the stress system, in addition to indexes of abnormal dopamine (DA)/glutamate plasticity and dysfunctional spine dynamics in the NAc. CBD administration (60 mg/kg) was able to: (1) increase social exploration in the binge-like alcohol exposed intruder rats, at the expenses of freezing time, and in control rats, which received less aggressive attacks from the resident; (2) reduce corticosterone levels independently on alcohol previous exposure; (3) restore DA transmission and (4) facilitate excitatory postsynaptic strength and remodelling.

Conclusions: Overall, the maladaptive behavioural and synaptic plasticity promoted by the intersection between binge-like alcohol withdrawal and exposure to adverse social stress can be rescued by a CBD détente effect that results in a successful defensive strategy, supported by a functional endocrine and synaptic plasticity. The current data highlight CBD’s relevant therapeutic potential in alcohol- and stress-related harms, and prompt further investigation on its molecular targets.”

Cannabidiol impairs fear memory reconsolidation in female rats through dorsal hippocampus CB1 but not CB2 receptor interaction

European Neuropsychopharmacology

“Women present increased susceptibility to anxiety- and stress-related disorders compared to men. A potentially promising pharmacological-based strategy to regulate abnormal aversive memories disrupts their reconsolidation stage after reactivation and destabilization.

Male rodent findings indicate that cannabidiol (CBD), a relatively safe and effective treatment for several mental health conditions, can impair the reconsolidation of aversive memories. However, whether and how CBD influences it in females is still unknown.

The present study addressed this question in contextually fear-conditioned female rats.

We report that systemically administered CBD impaired their reconsolidation, reducing freezing expression for over a week. This action was restricted to a time when the reconsolidation presumably lasted (< six hours post-retrieval) and depended on memory reactivation/destabilization. Moreover, the impairing effects of CBD on memory reconsolidation relied on the activation of cannabinoid type-1 but not type-2 receptors located in the CA1 subregion of the dorsal hippocampus.

CBD applied directly to this brain area was sufficient to reproduce the effects of systemic CBD treatment. Contextual fear memories attenuated by CBD did not show reinstatement, an extinction-related feature. By demonstrating that destabilized fear memories are sensitive to CBD and how it hinders mechanisms in the DH CA1 that may restabilize them in female rats, the present findings concur that reconsolidation blockers are viable and could be effective in disrupting abnormally persistent and distressing aversive memories such as those related to posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Cannabidiol Prevents Spontaneous Fear Recovery after Extinction and Ameliorates Stress-Induced Extinction Resistance


“Cannabidiol, the main non-psychotropic constituent of cannabis, has potential as a treatment for anxiety-related disorders since it reduces learned fear expression and enhances fear extinction.

The return of fear over time after successful extinction and stress-induced extinction resistance are potential barriers to the treatment of these disorders with extinction-based psychological therapy. In two experiments using rats subjected to auditory fear conditioning, we determined the effects of systemic cannabidiol treatment on (1) delayed extinction and later spontaneous fear recovery, and (2) extinction resistance caused by immediate extinction (the immediate extinction deficit (IED)). In Experiment 1, cannabidiol was given before delayed extinction occurring 24 h after conditioning, with extinction recall and spontaneous fear recovery tested drug-free 1 and 21 days after extinction, respectively.

We found that cannabidiol had no effect on extinction recall but it prevented spontaneous fear recovery. In Experiment 2, the IED procedure was first validated, with immediate extinction occurring 30 min after conditioning. We confirmed that immediate extinction impaired extinction recall, compared to delayed extinction. Next, cannabidiol was given before immediate or no extinction, with extinction recall tested drug-free the next day. We found that cannabidiol rescued the IED, which did not involve effects on fear memory consolidation.

In summary, cannabidiol prevented spontaneous fear recovery after delayed extinction and ameliorated extinction resistance caused by immediate extinction. Although the pharmacological mechanisms underlying these effects remain to be determined, our results add to evidence indicating that cannabidiol might prove useful as an adjunct for potentiating the psychological treatment of anxiety-related disorders.”

Cannabinoid modulation of brain activation during volitional regulation of negative affect in trauma-exposed adults


“Emotion dysregulation is considered a core component of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cognitive reappraisal is one therapeutic emotion regulation strategy that has been widely studied among individuals with mood and anxiety disorders, and numerous differences in brain activation patterns have been shown between individuals with and without PTSD during tasks of cognitive reappraisal.

Prior research among healthy subjects suggests that an acute, low dose of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) could attenuate the neurophysiological discrepancies that exist between individuals with and without PTSD during tasks of emotional processing; however, the effect of an acute, low dose of THC on corticolimbic activity during emotion regulation among individuals with PTSD has not yet been studied.

The present study aimed to investigate the effect of THC on negative affect and brain activation in a priori regions of interest during cognitive reappraisal among trauma-exposed individuals with and without PTSD.

Using a double-blind design, 51 individuals were randomized to receive THC or placebo (PBO) before participating in a well-established emotion regulation task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

THC but not PBO reduced negative affect during reappraisal, and THC increased dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) activation in response to neutral images. Individuals with PTSD displayed less activation in the angular gyrus, overall, compared to the trauma-exposed control (TEC) group, however THC increased angular gyrus activation in the PTSD group so that there was no significant difference in angular gyrus activation between the TEC and PTSD groups that received THC.

Compared to PBO, THC also increased cerebellar activation during exposure to neutral images in individuals with PTSD. Lastly, in participants that received THC, greater posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)/precuneus activation during reappraisal was associated with less self-reported negative affect following reappraisal blocks.

Together these findings suggest that THC may prove to be a beneficial pharmacological adjunct to cognitive reappraisal therapy in the treatment of PTSD.”

“Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) reduced negative affect during reappraisal.”