Acupuncture Reduces Relapse to Cocaine-Seeking Behavior

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In a recent study published in the March, 2017 edition of Addiction Biology (Society for the Study of Addiction), South Korean researchers concluded that acupuncture reduces relapse to cocaine-seeking behavior via activation of GABA neurons in the ventral tegmental area.

The researches had initially demonstrated that acupuncture at a specific acupuncture point reduced dopamine (DA) release in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) induced by drugs of abuse. In a subsequent study, they attempted to evaluate the effects of the same acupuncture point on γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neuronal activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the reinstatement of cocaine-seeking behavior. In plain English, they were attempting to determine whether stimulating the point interrupts the way through which drugs alter the brain.


Using microdialysis and in vivo single-unit electrophysiology, they evaluated the effects of the acupuncture point on VTA GABA and NAc DA release and VTA GABA neuronal activity in rats. That is, they attempted to see if the GABA and DA release were affected by stimulation of this point.

Stimulation of this point significantly decreased acute cocaine-induced DA release in the NAc, which was also blocked by 2-hydroxysaclofen. Point stimulation also attenuated cocaine-induced sensitization of extracellular DA levels in the NAc. Moreover, acupuncture reduced both locomotor activity and neuronal activation in the NAc induced by acute cocaine in a needle-penetration depth-dependent fashion. In short, the cocaine had less effect on the release of dopamine.
Keeping in mind that this study involved rats, it nonetheless showed:
  1. True (vs. so-called sham/placebo acupuncture DOES have an effect on the physiology of the brain. Given that placebo is defined as an agent that has no biological effect, acupuncture in this case does not fit that definition. Similarly, the study rats would unlikely be biased so as to affect the outcome. So, in this study, we can conclude that the effect of the acupuncture was more than placebo.

  2. Secondly, this shows that ancient Chinese physicians very likely observed similar outcomes in their human patients as that observed with the rats in this study. We can infer this from the name they assigned to the acupuncture point in question: “Spirit Gate” (gateway to the mind).
The study authors concluded that acupuncture may be an effective therapy to reduce cocaine relapse by enhancing GABAergic inhibition in the VTA.

The abstract can be found here.

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