Acupuncture has been shown to treat drug addiction. Clinical trials are taking place to determine the how effective it is. Previous studies including a study in the Lancet (August, 2003) showed that suppressed the clinical features of heroin withdrawal. The mechanisms by which acupuncture works in a Western Medical context are still poorly understood. Additional research using animal models is helping to do this. Long term exposure to drugs of abuse produces a withdrawal state. This state is characterized by the increases in brain reward thresholds. The acute administration of the drug produces opposite effects. The difference in the short term and long term effects of the drug may be a causal factor in the intense drug craving experienced by addicts.
There are four major dopaminergic tracts in the brain. The reinforcing effects of drugs have been linked to central dopamine activity in the mesolimbic dopaminergic tract which runs from the ventral tegmental area to many components of the limbic system. Dopamine is a catecholamine transmitter in the Central Nervous System (CNS), which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Research has shown that acupuncture directly or indirectly affects the mesolimbic dopamine system. This suggests that acupuncture helps to maintain the balance between excitatory and inhibitory processes involved in drug addiction. The results also suggests that the regulation of neurotransmitters in the CNS may be one of the therapeutic modes of action of acupuncture. Further studies are required to demonstrate if acupuncture effects any of the other neurotransmitters that regulate dopamine release.