Cannabinoids as therapeutics for PTSD

Brenda Sbarski, Irit Akirav

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex disorder that involves dysregulation of multiple neurobiological systems. The traumatic stressor plays a causal role in producing psychological dysfunction and the pattern of findings suggests that the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, which is instrumental for stress adaptation, is critically dysfunctional in PTSD. Given the lack of understanding of the basic mechanisms and underlying pathways that cause the disorder and its heterogeneity, PTSD poses challenges for treatment. Targeting the endocannabinoid (ECB) system to treat mental disorders, and PTSD in particular, has been the focus of research and interest in recent years. The ECB system modulates multiple functions, and drugs enhancing ECB signaling have shown promise as potential therapeutic agents in stress effects and other psychiatric and medical conditions. In this review, we focus on the interaction between the ECB-HPA systems in animal models for PTSD and in patients with PTSD. We summarize evidence supporting the use of cannabinoids in preventing and treating PTSD in preclinical and clinical studies. As the HPA system plays a key role in the mediation of the stress response and the pathophysiology of PTSD, we describe preclinical studies suggesting that enhancing ECB signaling is consistent with decreasing PTSD symptoms and dysfunction of the HPA axis. Overall, we suggest that a pharmacological treatment targeted at one system (e.g., HPA) may not be very effective because of the heterogeneity of the disorder. There are abnormalities across different neurotransmitter systems in the pathophysiology of PTSD and none of these systems function uniformly among all patients with PTSD. Hence, conceptually, enhancing ECB signaling may be a more effective avenue for pharmacological treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107551
JournalPharmacology and Therapeutics
StatePublished - Jul 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Inc.


  • Basolateral amygdala (BLA)
  • CB1 receptors
  • Corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF)
  • Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)
  • Pharmacology


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