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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli soldiers traumatised by battle with the Palestinians have a new, unconventional weapon to exorcise their nightmares -- marijuana.
Under an experimental programme, Delta-9 tetrohydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient found in the cannabis plant, will be administered to 15 soldiers over the next several months in an effort to fight post-traumatic stress disorder.
Raphael Mechoulam of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, the chief researcher behind a project he described as a world-first, said the chemical could trick the brain into suppressing unwanted memories.
For soldiers haunted by flashbacks of traumatic battle experiences, he said, the drug, administered in liquid form, could be the answer to hundreds of sleepless nights.
"It helps them sleep better, for one thing. These people often wake up from nightmares, and experience sweating or hallucinations," Mechoulam told Reuters.
The army said civilian and military committees had approved the experiment.
Millions of people, mainly war veterans, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition that can develop after experiencing life-threatening events.
Doctors already use so-called medical marijuana to treat nausea among cancer patients, appetite loss among AIDS sufferers and neurological disorders such as Tourette's Syndrome, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
However, Mechoulam said this is the first time THC would be used to treat post-traumatic stress.
Some of the soldiers slated to take part in the experiment came down with the disorder after experiences confronting a Palestinian uprising which began in 2000. Others are veterans of past Israeli-Arab wars.
Symptoms can be eased by painkillers and psychological treatment but THC could speed up the process, or at least reduce the number of traumatic episodes, said Mechoulam. He was among a group of researchers that first isolated THC in 1964.
"If given two or three times a day, it lasts about six hours at a time," Mechoulam said at his office in the university's School of Pharmacy.
The effects of THC on stress were first discovered by Germany's Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in 2002. Scientists tested it on mice and found THC lessened their fear of electric shocks, because it suppressed their memory of them.
Israel's army usually frowns on cannabis and soldiers caught smoking it can expect to be stripped of their ranks or thrown into military jail. Special government authorisation was needed for the experiment.
"A medical permit is needed for what is called 'compassionate use' of marijuana, which means it's used to treat illnesses ... when nothing else seems to work," Mechoulam said.
Smoking marijuana, as an estimated eight percent of Israelis aged 18-40 do, does not act as a medicine on its own, he said.
"The drug is only approved for medical use, and its active curing ingredient, THC, must be isolated and used in medical treatment," he said.
Instead of smoking the drug, soldiers will drink THC dissolved in olive oil.
"We prefer to give it under the tongue rather than through a pill because it's more effective. I hope (the drug) will help at least part of the time, so they can sleep better more often," Mechoulam said.
If successful, the treatment could be tried elsewhere.
The U.S. National Centre for Mental Health says that 30 percent of Americans who spent time in war zones have experienced the disorder, dubbed "shell shock" by veterans of World War One.
Surveys conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington in 2003 found that nearly a fifth of U.S. soldiers returning from the war in Iraq may suffer from the disorder.
A million Vietnam War veterans are believed to have developed it as well.