The therapeutic value of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) in the aftermath of trauma has recently raised interest. A prospective animal model for posttraumatic stress disorder was employed to assess the behavioral effects of a single dose of Δ9-THC administered intraperitoneally following exposure to psychogenic stress.
Animals were exposed to predator scent stress and treated 1 h later with Δ9-THC (1, 5 and 10 mg/kg) or vehicle. The outcome measures included behavior in an elevated plus-maze and acoustic startle response 1, 6 and 24 h or 7 days after exposure and freezing behavior upon exposure to a trauma cue on day 8. Pre-set cut-off behavioral criteria classified exposed animals as those with “extreme,” “minimal” or “intermediate” (partial) response. Circulating corticosterone levels were assessed over 2 h after exposure with and without Δ9-THC. The behavioral effects of a CB1 antagonist (AM251) administered systemically 1 h post exposure were evaluated.
In the short term (1–6 h), 5 mg/kg of Δ9-THC effectively attenuated anxiety-like behaviors. In the longer-term (7 days), it showed no effect in attenuating PTSD-like behavioral stress responses, or freezing response to trauma cue. Δ9-THC significantly decreased corticosterone levels. In contrast, administration of AM251 (a CB1 antagonist/inverse agonist) 1 h post exposure attenuated long-term behavioral stress responses through activation of the HPA-axis.
The demonstrated lack of preventive efficacy of early Δ9-THC treatment and reports of its anxiogenic effects in many individuals raises doubts not only regarding its potential clinical value, but also the advisability of clinical trials. The endocannabinoids exert complex effects on behavioral responses mediating glucocorticoid effects on memory of traumatic experiences.