Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury among military veterans and use of non-intoxicating medical marijuana as a treatment


Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist


March 28, 2018


Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs due to a single or a sequence of traumatic events which causes a great deal of anxiety when exposed to situations similar to the event. Flashbacks and nightmares may occur. In military veterans returning from the Iraqi or war in Afghanistan and even to this day in Vietnam War veterans, emotional disruption is noticeable. It is difficult to know if this is related to blast injury or is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD correlated with mild traumatic brain injury

In a retrospective study reviewing medical records of 27,169 military personnel of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), 2831 met criteria of mild traumatic brain injury using the Immediate post-concussion assessment cognitive test, PTSD checklist, and the post-concussion symptom scale. Of these, 28% exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Military veterans of blunt, blast or a combination injury had a higher percent of meeting criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder than those without mild traumatic brain injury. Those with blast/combination injury had a higher percent of post-traumatic stress disorder and performed worse with visual memory and time for reacting compared the cohort without any blunt or mild traumatic brain injury.  Repetitive exposure to blast-type injuries may have a lingering effect (2). This study found a  high degree of PTSD symptoms in those with blast, blunt and combination injury compared to the cohort without it.


In a study, disrupted emotional responses correlate with PTSD rather than blast-related traumatic brain injury

Another study tried to dissect whether the emotional responses of war veterans are due to PTSD or due to the mild brain injury itself.  In one study of 123 military veterans from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, affective evaluations and psychological assessments were made in response to pleasant, neutral, unpleasant and war-related images.  Those with emotional disruption due to PTSD rated pleasant images as unpleasant and had increased physiological responses towards combat-related images. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder included increased skin conductance responses, greater corrugator muscle electromyography responses, and reduced heart decelerations. There were no effects noted in veterans with mild traumatic brain injury.  This points towards the emotional disruption seen in military veterans as related with post-traumatic stress disorder rather than due to the mild traumatic brain injury itself. This study may help guide treatment as military veterans transition to civilian life (1).

Medical marijuana and mechanism of action, a non-intoxicating solution when cannabidiol is used alone or in conjunction with low dose tetrahydrocannabinol

Cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating endocannabinoid that works within the endocannabinoid system found naturally in our systems. It has only a weak affinity to the CB1 receptor which is found abundantly within the neurological system.  CB1 receptors are found to be increased in response to cerebral cell damage and seem to work as a repair mechanism for neural systems that are not functioning. Tetrahydrocannabinol at low concentrations has medical properties without the intoxication of high dose THC. THC should be used in combination with CBD to offset the possible side effects such as hyperactivity.

There are increasing studies showing the value of medical marijuana, especially in the central nervous system especially given the large abundance of the CB1 receptor within the nervous system. The receptors are found to be upregulated in the face of disease suggesting a cell repair role or a response to the abnormalities within the brain, For example, in patient with seizures, the CB1 receptor is found to be increased in the temporal lobe within the dentate gyrus compared to other cells almost as a response to the aberrant system within the cortex. The receptors are found to be increased in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Medical Marijuana as a solution for symptoms of cognitive impairment in war veterans

In one study, 24 patients were enrolled in a study for executive function and were registered medical marijuana users. After 3 months, 11 patients returned and using the Stroop Color Word Test, were found to have a higher level of executive function and increased speed completing tasks without being inaccurate. Patients reported less insomnia, less depression, better attention, less impulsivity and a better quality of life. There was less use of pharmacologic use and less use of opioid agents by 42% in conjunction with medical marijuana. Larger clinical randomized controlled clinical studies are needed.

Medical marijuana seems to be an excellent agent in those affected by traumatic brain injury.

Medical Marijuana as a solution for and PTSD symptom in war veterans

Cannabidiol works at the level of the 5HT1 receptor causing patients to feel less anxious and may be used in post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, it has been found to have a role in modulating memory and instead of the learned fear response and may help with PTSD by modulating the conditioned response to a stimulus that normally begets anxiety and fearfulness. In other words, instead of the heart rate increasing or having flashbacks when a war scene is on TV, medical marijuana can exert its effect by modulating behavior by changing the learned response by not responding the same way and being calm in face of a previously anxiety-inciting war scene(4).

In conclusion

In summary, PTSD and traumatic brain injury are real problems faced by war veterans returning with blast injury, blunt-injury or combination type combat-related injuries. Medical marijuana may be an excellent non-intoxicating solution when cannabidiol is taken or combined with low dose tetrahydrocannabinol which can help with depression, anxiety and help modulate responses to post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical marijuana can help with executive function and attention and may be beneficial in treating war veterans suffering from mild traumatic brain injury.




  1. Marquardt, et al, “Symptoms of Post-traumatic stress rather than mild traumatic brain injury best account for altered emotional responses in military veterans,” J. Trauma Stress, 2018, Feb., 31 (1):114-124.
  2. Kontos, et al, “Residual effects of combat-related mild traumatic brain injury, “J. Neurotrauma, 2013, Apr., 15, 30 (8):680-6.
  3. Gruber, et al, “Splendor in the Grass? A pilot study assessing the impact of medical marijuana on executive function,” Front. Pharmacology, 2016,. Oct., 13 (7):355.
  4. Uhernik, et al, “Learning and memory are modulated by cannabidiol when administered during trace fear-conditioning,” Neurobiology of Learned Memory, 2018, Feb., 9, 149:58-76. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2018.02.009 (Epub ahead of print)
Anxiety, Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Uncategorized

Cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol: effectiveness in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist

March 20, 2018

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the silent disorder that could be affecting the co-worker who sits one cubicle over from you. When one hears of post-traumatic stress disorder, one thinks of traumatizing incidents such as war, abuse or some other devastating event but can occur even in situations such as car accidents or a spouse of many decades suddenly leaving. It is the quiet disorder that if you do not expound on it, nobody really knows about it. Because of the stigma surrounding psychological disorders, often times, help is not sought in a timely manner.

It is often characterized by nightmares waking someone up in the middle of the night or sudden flashbacks when placed in a situation similar to the traumatic event.  Management includes working with a psychiatrist using conventional medications and a psychologist using behavioral therapy. It is not uncommon for a patient to have to go through many different anti-depressants or anxiolytics before one finds the correct drug and titration. But sometimes even the best medications fail to treat someone with Post-traumatic stress disorder adequately. Psychotherapy may be helpful in some patients depending on the patient. In others,  there is less benefit and some dislike the thought of reliving the experience in order to learn coping mechanisms.


Alternatives include non-pharmacologic measures including relaxation techniques such as doing yoga, Tai Chi or meditation. Exercise can often boost the mood and doing enjoyable activities may help alleviate symptoms without the addition of pharmacologic agents. Doing something one enjoys or taking joy in the simple activities in life such as writing poetry, art therapy, taking up a sport may help alleviate some of the stress. Great tips can be found on Psychiatrist, Dr. Welby’s site found here:

More and more patients are turning towards alternative measures, finding that conventional medications are not always optimal. Cannabidiol works through the endocannabinoid pathway and modulates its effect through the CB1 receptor which is predominantly found in the nervous system. The CB2 receptor is found mostly in the immune system. In some studies, it was found that cannabidiol may help reduce fearful memory if taken in the conditioning phase so that rather than reacting to the stimulus with fear, the stimulus is then associated with a different reaction and may help mitigate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder through this mechanism (1). In another study, it was found to influence synaptic dendrites and may contribute towards learned memory in the hippocampus (2).


Cannabidiol interacts with the 5HT-A receptor which is an important receptor in mitigating the symptoms of anxiety. Serotonin works through the 5HT1-A receptors. Some anxiolytics and anti-depressants work through an increase in serotonin which boosts the mood. Cannabidiol itself is known to have a calming effect with none of the euphoria found in THC alone.   Cannabidiol is non-intoxicating and when combined with low dose tetrahydrocannabinol has great medical effects.

In summary, when medications and therapy are found to be ineffective for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression, cannabidiol which is non-intoxicating may be an effective therapeutic option alone or in conjunction with low dose THC and should be considered.




  1. Uhernik, et al, “Learning and memory are modulated by cannabidiol when administered during trace fear-conditioning,” Neurobiology of Learned Memory, 2018, Feb., 9, 149:58-76. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2018.02.009 (Epub ahead of print)
  2. Lee, et al, “Cannabidiol regulation of emotion and emotional memory processing: relevance for treating anxiety-related and substance abuse disorder,” British Journal of Pharmacology, 2017, Oct., 174 (19): 3242-3256. doi: 10.1111/bph.13724. (Epub. 2017 Mar. 9.)