Lab animals are used in all sorts of bizarre experiments, but a new study this week is definitely one for the scrapbook. A team of researchers in Korea and the U.S. got rats addicted to alcohol, then attempted to alleviate their withdrawal symptoms using acupuncture. And according to their data, the treatment was fairly successful. But there’s more than a few reasons to be skeptical of acupuncture’s healing power when it comes to addiction.
According to the study, published in Science Advances on Wednesday, the researchers first trained rats to use a lever that would give them water laced with alcohol. Then they got half the rats hooked on alcohol by feeding it to them for 16 days, while the other half served as a control. The next day, the rats were left without alcohol for two hours, enough time for them to start experiencing withdrawal symptoms, including tremors and anxiety. Some of the rats were then given acupuncture, getting a tiny needle placed in their wrist—a position called Shen Men, Heart 7, or HT7 by practitioners.
The authors found that the alcohol-dependent rats given acupuncture at HT7 were less likely to experience withdrawal symptoms than those not given it; they also fed themselves less alcohol when they later had the opportunity to do so.
Based on earlier research by the authors, they also theorized that HT7 could treat alcohol dependence by affecting neurons in the brain that produce beta endorphins, a natural opioid and “feel-good” chemical. Beta endorphins likely play an important role in alcohol dependence. When we drink alcohol, we produce a short burst of more beta endorphins. But those who chronically abuse alcohol often have less of it, and when they try to go through withdrawal, their levels plummet even further. This lack of beta endorphins is thought to help cause the craving and withdrawal symptoms that send people back to the bottle.
Sure enough, the rats given acupuncture at HT7 seemed to have their levels of beta endorphins rebound during withdrawal, specifically because of neurons activated in the hypothalamus, a region linked to alcohol dependence. To further test their theory, they also injected dependent rats with beta endorphins directly, and got similar results to what they saw with HT7 acupuncture. Meanwhile, acupuncture given somewhere besides HT7 didn’t help the rats, and when the rats were given naloxone—a drug that suppresses the brain’s response to opioids—the effects of acupuncture at HT7 weren’t seen either.
“These results suggest that acupuncture may provide a novel, potential treatment strategy for alcohol use disorder by direct activation of the brain pathway,” the authors wrote
The design of these experiments seems to be good. And while you shouldn’t automatically accept (or discount) a study’s results based on where it’s published, Science Advances is a prestigious, well-respected journal.
But this isn’t the first time people have claimed to find evidence of acupuncture’s health benefits, including for treating drug and alcohol addiction. There are studies and clinical trials going back decades, using actual people rather than rats. And when you look at the big picture, you’re left with an inconsistent dud. The better-done, larger studies tend to find no effect in actually helping people avoid alcohol, while positive studies are usually very flawed and have a high risk of bias.
The authors of this study are commendable for trying to find a biological reason why acupuncture could treat dependence, but it also remains true that acupuncture is said to work by activating the body’s hidden channels of energy, called meridian points. Perhaps needless to say, there’s no good evidence that meridian points are a real thing.
None of the above means that acupuncture can’t treat alcohol addiction. But we’re nowhere close to proving that it can. And a new rat study shouldn’t change the equation much.