Professor Han Jisheng believes he has a needle-free treatment that can help drug addicts.
The 74-year-old neurophysiologist from Peking University has developed an electronic acupuncture device that can assist drug addicts in their efforts to quit their habit.
By applying electrodes to the surface of the skin, the device - Han's Acupoint Nerve Stimulator (HANS) - can be used in lieu of acupuncture for the treatment of various kinds of pain, severe muscle spasm, and to treat drug addicts.
"As an important part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has gradually gained world popularity for its non-chemical treatment," Han said. "Our purpose is to identify the scientific mechanism of it. If I'm right, it will be one of the methods used in mainstream medicine in the future."
Han, director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at Peking University and also a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has devoted himself to the ancient medicine for three decades.
Through hours of trial and error, Han and his peers discovered that when four acupoints are stimulated by an electrical current at a certain frequency, some chemical changes will occur in the brain which reduces drug addicts' mental reliance on drugs.
Starting from 1993, Han has published his findings in both Chinese and US medical magazines, including the China Science Bulletin and Neuroreport in the United States.
The four acupoints are laogong and hegu in the hands and neiguan and waiguan in the forearm.
The most telling evidence that electroacupuncture is effective in treating drug addiction comes from the feedback of patients at drug rehab clinics in cities such as Xi'an, Zhanjiang, Beijing, Haikou and Shanghai, where the treatment has been applied.
Han's approach is to use modern scientific methods to explore the essence of ancient Chinese medical techniques, combined with clinical practice.
Chinese physicians learned nearly 3,000 years ago how to stimulate body points evoking sensations of pain, touch, and temperature (acupuncture, acupressure, and moxibustion). The theories developed involve theoretical functions to which organ structures were only incidentally attached.
Basic to the Chinese system of medicine is a hypothesized body energy, or qi, believed to flow through the body's meridian channels.
An ancient text -- the "Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicines (Huangdi Neijing)" -- quotes a minister who states: "On these meridians there are 365 acupuncture points, one for each day of the year."
In the late 1950s, China reported the use of electrically stimulated needles to obtain the strongest possible stimulus for surgical anesthesia which aroused great interest in the 1960s.
In 1972, the United States National Institutes of Health gave their first grant to study acupuncture. The study reported that acupuncture was not hypnosis and that while needles alone could slightly decrease the pain experienced, electrical stimulation added to needles produced statistically significant relief.
The ancient Chinese medicine has, in a sense, been validated, but reformulated in terms of modern neurobiology.
Neurobiologists explain that energizing a needle by constant twirling, or a pulsing electrical current, stimulates the gene expression of neuropeptide (a kind of peptide at the nerve system) in the central nervous system.
Points used are adjacent to nerve fibers and nerve roots. Such skin points are bilaterally symmetrical and may differ electrically from surrounding tissue.
Stimulation for 30 minutes before surgery enabled a reduction of chemical anesthetic by up to 50 per cent, according to Han.
In the late 1970s, scientists discovered that opiates had specific binding sites in the brain, which are called opiate receptors.
Experts hypothesized that opiate receptors wouldn't exist without an internal morphine-like substance. Sure enough, scientists have found the existence of an opioid in the human brain, according to the National Institutes of Health based in the United States.
Today the term opioid is used for all internal morphine-like substances, including endorphins.
Actively engaged in acupuncture research since 1965, Han found that acupuncture can induce the production and release of many chemical substances, such as endorphins, in the brain to produce a pain-killing effect.
Moreover, Han also found that when the stimulation lasts more than two hours, the brain will produce other chemicals like cholecystokinin or CCK. This chemical is a kind of peptide produced by brain which has the adverse function of an opioid, thus reducing its effect.
These discoveries made Han the winner of the 1987 and 1999 National Natural Science Award and led to the design of the HANS device.
The fight against drugs
Han first experimented with his therapy on heroin-injected mice and then applied it on humans in clinical testing.
"It was effective on both the mice and humans," he told a science and technology symposium in early December.
As part of his study on physical drug dependence, Han put two mice in a box, separated them by a piece of glass, and regularly injected one mouse with heroin and left the other mouse untouched.
After 10 days, the glass was removed and the non-drugged mouse "moved aimlessly about the box" while the heroin-injected mouse stayed in the same place where it received the drug.
Researchers then applied electronic acupuncture to one of its legs, and determined that it worked at a frequency of two hertz.
"Data from our experiments show the acupuncture resulted in a chemical change in the mouse brain that blocked the desire for the drug," Han said.
In the past few years, Han, with approval from the ministries of health and public security, and his colleagues have tried their electro-acupuncture device at drug rehab centers in Beijing, Shanghai and a few other cities.
Doctors at Peking University's Hainan Medical Treatment Center for Drug Rehabilitation have reported that some addicts did give up drugs after treatment with the acupuncture therapy.
In August 2000, about 40 addicts went through treatment for nearly one month.
"By the end of 2001, a series of follow-up checks indicated three people had been drug-free in the past year," said Wu Liuzhen, director of the center and also Han's assistant at the Neuroscience Research Institute at Peking University.
Sun Liqun is among the three people. He said he couldn't remember how many times he had tried to quit drugs during his eight-year addiction. He became addicted to a prescription drug after first using it to treat a toothache. He received withdrawal treatment but was craving it again after only two or three months.
"I was driven to the brink of desperation until I found HANS," the 39-year-old Shanghai resident recalled.
Now, nine months later, Sun has not succumbed again.
"HANS has helped me find confidence again," Sun said at a HANS curative effect test meeting, which was organized by the Shanghai Public Security Bureau and the Shanghai Anti-drug Committee in mid-January.
"I am here to show others that I can quit drugs. Finally, I've made it," Sun said.
At the meeting, six former drug addicts who have used HANS for more than a year passed a series of follow-up checks such as urinalysis and Naloxone tests. The results proved they had been drug-free in the past year.
The six were granted a 5,000-yuan (US$602) award each for being drug-free for one year.
Han and his wife Zhu Xiuyuan, a retired medical professor, initiated the fund last year to award recovering drug addicts. The couple donated 100,000 yuan (US$12,000) to the fund.
"Relapse is their biggest enemy," Han said. "It is always going to be difficult for a former drug addict to stay away from drugs while he or she is still around friends who do them."
Drug rehabilitation should be tackled from two fronts, he said from the addict's physical and psychological dependence on drugs.
Psychological dependence is harder to get rid of than physical dependence.
In the past few years, more than 600 drug addicts have tried HANS and so far, 11 recovering patients have been drug-free for more than a year.
Although the results are still far from satisfactory, the ministries of health and public security have continued to support Han in his experiments.
Han is going to establish a large acupuncture clinic for drug rehabilitation therapy in Guangzhou, the capital of South China's Guangdong Province.
A long way to go
At present, the world's most popular treatment for heroin and other opioid dependence is methadone maintenance treatment.
As a synthetic narcotic, methadone is cheap and can be taken orally which reduces the transmission of the AIDS virus, according to Li Yu, deputy director of the Shanghai Mandatory Drug Rehabilitation Center in the Shanghai Public Security Bureau.
The authorities have set up a methadone distribution network across the country as large as the post office network to reach more addicts, since methadone maintenance treatment requires drug addicts to get doses every day without a break during their lifetime.
"In the United States, treatment only covers one fourth of its total drug addicts," Li said.
"We have to find a treatment that fits the reality of China. I see hope through the HANS device." The Shanghai Rehabilitation Center introduced HANS recently and the result is encouraging.
"The marriage of Chinese ancient medicine and modern medical thinking may yield a drug addiction treatment with a real Chinese character," Li said.
(China Daily February 4, 2002)