Rationale: Excessive fear and anxiety, coupled with corticolimbic dysfunction, are core features of stress- and trauma-related psychopathology, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Interestingly, low doses of ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can produce anxiolytic effects, reduce threat-related amygdala activation, and enhance functional coupling between the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex and adjacent rostral cingulate cortex (mPFC/rACC) during threat processing in healthy adults. Together, these findings suggest the cannabinoid system as a potential pharmacological target in the treatment of excess fear and anxiety. However, the effects of THC on corticolimbic functioning in response to threat have not be investigated in adults with trauma-related psychopathology.
Objective: To address this gap, the present study tests the effects of an acute low dose of THC on corticolimbic responses to threat in three groups of adults: (1) non-trauma-exposed healthy controls (HC; n = 25), (2) trauma-exposed adults without PTSD (TEC; n = 27), and (3) trauma-exposed adults with PTSD (n = 19).
Methods: Using a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subjects design, 71 participants were randomly assigned to receive either THC or placebo (PBO) and subsequently completed a well-established threat processing paradigm during functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Results: In adults with PTSD, THC lowered threat-related amygdala reactivity, increased mPFC activation during threat, and increased mPFC-amygdala functional coupling.
Conclusions: These preliminary data suggest that THC modulates threat-related processing in trauma-exposed individuals with PTSD, which may prove advantageous as a pharmacological approach to treating stress- and trauma-related psychopathology.
Keywords: Amygdala; Cannabinoid; PTSD; Prefrontal cortex; Threat processing.