BYU psychology professor looks to acupuncture for treating addiction

BYU psychology professor Scott Steffensen is showing that acupuncture can have a very real impact at the neurological level, better helping those recovering from addiction.

Steffensen, in collaboration with a lab in South Korea, has published studies addressing the neural underpinnings of acupuncture, with three over the past year in the journals Addiction Biology and Scientific Reports.

“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,” Steffensen said. “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 ancient Greek, Egyptian, Arabic and Chinese origins. It’s been used for centuries to treat various medical conditions and diseases. However, the longevity of its use does not necessarily prove its effectiveness. The success of acupuncture in alleviating some medical conditions is not clear and there is no consensus regarding which mechanisms to use. Some claim there are unknown energies underlying acupuncture’s success in alleviating pain. Others claim sensory stimulation blocks pain transmission. Others claim it has a strong placebo effect.

Steffensen is going beyond the previous claims and is studying the neuroscience behind acupuncture. He has shown it to be an effective method of activating pathways from the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system. Here’s how:

  • Those suffering from withdrawal have dysregulated dopamine levels in the midbrain reward/pleasure system
  • This causes dysregulation of GABA neurons in this system, and they become hyperactive, inhibiting dopamine neurons and lowering dopamine levels during withdrawl
  • Lowered dopamine levels is the driving force for relapse
  • Accupuncture stimulation inhibits GABA neurons
  • This restores dopamine levels and effectively lowers the driving force for relapse

In the US, more than 20 million people suffer from drug and alcohol abuse issues, with only 19 percent of them receiving treatment and only 50 percent of those ever recovering.

“We really, really hope that this research can provide an avenue to help people get their lives back,” said Kyle Bills, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate and coauthor on the Steffensen lab’s most recent paper.

The Steffensen lab has published different papers looking specifically at acupuncture protocols for alcohol addiction, cocaine addiction and methamphetamine addiction and hopes to advance the acupuncture technology with state of the art neuroscience tools.

“We hope to develop a treatment system for ameliorating drug cravings,” Steffensen said, “as an effective supplement to addiction therapy.”

Jon McBride, University Communications

Fulbright Day for Students and Faculty

Discover how you can make an impact abroad!

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Programs offer faculty, administrators and professionals grants to lecture, and/or conduct research in a wide variety of academic and professional fields, or to participate in seminars.

Faculty members interested in learning about opportunities with the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program should attend an informational presentation given by Sophia Yang, a Fulbright Program Officer. The presentation will be held from 12:00-12:50 p.m. on March 29th, 2018 in W-170 Benson building. (Light lunch to be served). The presentation will be followed by one-on-one interviews (from 1:00 to 1:50 p.m.) with Ms. Yang. Faculty members may sign up for Ms. Yang’s presentation here: U.S. Scholar Program Presentation.

Students interested in learning about opportunities with the Fulbright U.S. Student Program should plan on attending Sophia Yang’s presentation about the program. The presentation will be held from 2:00-2:50 p.m. on March 29th, 2018 in W-170 Benson building. Students may sign up for Ms. Yang’s presentation here: Fulbright Student Seminar Sign Up Sheet.

Email fhssresdev@byu.edu with questions.

About Sophia Yang

Sophia Yang is a Program Officer for the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program where she manages the East Asia Pacific and South and Central Asia regions at the Institute of International Education. Prior to joining IIE, she worked at the Council on Foreign Relations as a Research Associate for the Japan Studies Program and Assistant Director of the Center for Preventive Action. She has an MA in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a BA in Communications and Asian American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Ms. Yang has lived and traveled throughout Asia, where she discovered the value of international exchanges. Complementing her fondness for traveling is her passion to discover good eats wherever the next destination takes her and her family.