APR 24, 2018 7:01 AM PDT

Can Acupuncture Treat Drug Addiction?

The problem of addiction is reaching epidemic proportions in the United States as well as in other countries. Opioids specifically have been a problem, especially those that are laced with fentanyl which is deadly even in small doses.

Scott Steffensen, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, recently completed research into possible neurological benefits from acupuncture. Understanding exactly how the ancient art of placing needles at strategic points in the body could lead to treatments for patients recovering from addiction.

Steffensen explained, "The objective of our research, and that of our South Korean collaborators and other labs, is to characterize the neurobiology of acupuncture with evidence-based research. In other words, does acupuncture work through established neural pathways in the periphery and central nervous system? However, of particular interest to us is that acupuncture has been shown to be effective in animal models to ameliorate drug cravings and self-administration."

Acupuncture has been around for centuries and was practiced by the Greeks, Egyptians, and the Chinese. However, solid research into how it works and the underlying mechanism of the relief it provides from pain and muscle spasm has been sporadic at best. While thousands swear by it for the treatment of everything from allergies to depression, it's never been made clear if there are real neurological benefits or if there's a substantial placebo effect for many patients. Some practitioners claim it works because there are "unknown energies" at work, while others say it's successful because of the nerves and pathways that are stimulated during treatment. The team at BYU, together with a lab in South Korea sought to find out exactly what happens in the neural pathways that account for its effectiveness.

Steffensen described the mechanism of acupuncture in a series of steps, especially as it relates to addiction. Someone who is in recovery will experience withdrawal because the reward center in the brain is disrupted by drug use and dopamine levels are off-kilter. This disruption then impacts GABA neurons, which reduce dopamine levels even further. Dopamine makes people feel happy and have a sense of well-being. When levels are low, depression, relapse, and cognitive impairment can result. Steffensen found that acupuncture inhibits the activity of the GABA neurons, allowing dopamine levels to rise to adequate levels. When dopamine is produced in normal amounts, it helps a patient resist relapsing and stops the cravings for the drugs. The research showed how acupuncture could create pathways between the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system and getting this integration back on track is an effective way to reduce cravings and can improve the chances that a person can have a successful recovery.

The team at BYU have published a series of papers on addiction and the use of acupuncture including looking at alcohol dependence, cocaine addiction, and methamphetamine use. There are more than 20 million Americans suffering from some kind of substance abuse issue, and the numbers on treatment are discouraging. Only about 19% of addicts will receive treatment, and among those, only 50% will ever recover from their addiction. Adding opioids into the mix raises the numbers dramatically. According to the National for Health Statistics, there were over 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016. Of those, opioid painkillers were involved in about 14,400 patients, and heroin was linked to another 15,400. Fentanyl was a factor in more than 20,000 deaths, and the rest were from alcohol, cocaine or other drugs.

Steffensen and his colleagues hope that by uncovering how acupuncture works, from a neuroscience perspective, more patients will have access to it. Many traditional doctors are hesitant to recommend it since it's been unclear precisely how it works. Check out the video to learn more about the work.

Sources: Brigham Young University, National Center for Health Statistics, Addiction Biology, Scientific Reports

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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