Research Brief – Cannabidiol regulation of emotion and emotional memory processing: relevance for treating anxiety-related and substance abuse disorders

Lee JLC, Bertoglio LJ, Guimarães FS, Stevenson CW. Cannabidiol regulation of emotion and emotional memory processing: relevance for treating anxiety-related and substance abuse disorders. British Journal of Pharmacology. 2017;174(19):3242-3256. doi:10.1111/bph.13724

Memories and Their Role in Behavior, Learning and Survival

There are two types of memory that help humans learn to link cues with rewards or potential threats; these skills enhance survival. The two types of memory include “appetitive” and “aversive.” Appetitive memories play an important role in behavior and learning. Under certain circumstances, appetitive memories can become maladaptive and are often linked with addiction and anxiety-related disorders. Aversive memories are considered negative memories; this type of memory can lend itself to survival by helping a person avoid a threat linked with a previous experience. 

The Link Between Anxiety and Substance Use Disorders

There are several different underlying causes and types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized
  • Social anxiety
  • Panic 
  • Phobias
  • Trauma-related (PTSD) 

Many types of anxiety are considered forms of serious mental health conditions, linked with a lifetime prevalence. 

Anxiety-related disorders such as PTSD and addiction involve ongoing, distorted fear-based memories and drug related stimuli. Memories often trigger reemergence of symptoms even after treatment. Pharmacological and psychological therapies provide limited effectiveness in stopping long-term symptom relapse.

In addition, co-morbidity is common between PTSD and substance use disorders and certain types of substances being abused may interfere with the complex learning and memory processes involved in treatment. For example, many psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, require memory processing for optimal effectiveness. Therefore, there is a very pressing need for more effective treatment modalities for these disorders.   

THE STUDY - Cannabinoid Receptors, Cannabidiol, & Emotion Regulation

Cannabinoid receptors in the brain control crucial, survival-linked memories that are powerful drivers of behavior. 

Disorders associated with maladaptation, such as substance use disorder and anxiety-related conditions, are linked with ongoing abnormal emotional memories; this often leads to relapse in those who are chemically dependent. Studies show that cannabidiol (CBC), found in the Cannabis sativa L. plant, reduces anxiety via indirect cannabinoid receptor activation. Animal research studies have shown positive effects of cannabidiol on fear-based memory processing. CBD reduces fear memory processing involved in learned fear associated with phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). CBD was found to acutely lower fear expression, disruption fear memory and enhances fear extinction. 

Studies suggest that CBD acutely reduces the expression of drug memories by disrupting the reconsolidation of the memories.  In addition to its effect on fear and drug use memory processing, CBD also has anxiolytic effects.  Understanding exactly how CBD regulates emotions and emotional memory processing may lead to the use of cannabidiol in the treatment of substance use and anxiety-related disorders.
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