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30 Nov 2017

The Importance of Forgetting – Why Veterans with PTSD Cope Using Cannabis

The ability to forget is a crucial aspect of psychological evolution and adaptation. This may come as a surprise; it is easy to understand how being able to remember keeps us alive, for example by helping us avoid eating a poisonous plant. However, forgetting well is almost as important as remembering well. We wouldn’t want to remember the face of everyone we saw on transit, or all the prices at the supermarket. Forgetting filters out the information we are flooded with every day, and allows our brain to edit in order to focus on memories that are beneficial to our daily functioning and survival.

What gives us the ability to forget is a series of neurotransmitters in our brain, of which a chemical called anandamide plays a major role. As well as memory, it also affects regions of the brain that regulate appetite and pain. Sound familiar? What is perhaps most interesting about anandamide is that, at the cellular and receptor level, it shares exactly the same qualities as THC. The brain has cannabinoid receptors that the THC molecule to binds to, which allows us to get high. However, although it is incredible that there just so happens to be a plant in nature that binds perfectly to these receptors, they are not for the sole purpose of feeling the effects of cannabis — generally speaking, receptors exist in order to bind to a naturally occurring chemical in the brain.

We have learned huge amounts about neuroscience by studying cannabis; cannabinoid receptors and anandamide are essential in the extinction of conditioned fear and traumatic memory. PTSD is primarily characterized by an inability to forget previously traumatic experiences, along with the physical & emotional response that were necessary at the time. This leads to flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety. In 2015 alone, there were 14,375 Canadian Veterans diagnosed with PTSD. In order to treat it, it is necessary to find a method that will allow Veterans to unlearn the past reactions and behaviours associated with the immense trauma they experienced. Currently, the typical treatment for Canadian Veterans consists of a wide array of pharmaceuticals, which leads to further depression in most cases, and alcoholism and/or suicidal ideation in many. The rate of Veterans with PTSD experimenting with medical cannabis increased by 22.7% in 2014 alone, reporting relief from their symptoms and eventual cessation of their pharmaceutic regime.

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