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Acupuncture Today
May, 2002, Vol. 03, Issue 05
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NIMH Awards Grant to Study Acupuncture for Bipolar Disorder

By Editorial Staff

For the 1.9 million Americans who suffer from bipolar disorder, life can be a physical and emotional rollercoaster. People diagnosed with classic bipolar disorder usually alternate between periods of intense excitement, or mania, and periods of extreme depression.

Most patients with the condition currently rely on a combination of daily medications to lessen the severity of symptoms, but these medications can be expensive, especially for people without insurance. Many medications also cause significant side-effects, which often causes patients to discontinue their use.

Few people know about bipolar disorder better than Dr. Tricia Suppes, an associate professor of psychiatry at UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. According to Suppes, the condition is a "common, severe and persistent mental illness" that can disrupt the lives of patients and the family members who care for them, and can eventually lead to "loss of jobs, marriages and even lives."

Because the drugs currently used to treat bipolar disorder are costly and, in most cases, inadequate, Suppes has long felt a "critical" need to find a less expensive, more effective treatment. That's why she and a team of investigators are using a grant of approximately $150,000 from the National Institutes of Mental Health to look into the use of acupuncture - not as a replacement for bipolar disorder medications, but as an adjunct to them.

The researchers are currently enrolling patients between the ages of 18 and 65 who are in the depressed stage of bipolar disorder, which is characterized by a loss of sleep, weight loss/gain, crying spells and loss of interest in normal activities. The two-year project will involve 30 male and female patients randomly assigned into two groups. One group of patients will receive acupuncture at specific points on the body directed toward treating the symptoms of depression; the other will receive nonspecific acupuncture to address any physical complaints. Patients in both groups will continue taking their regular medications throughout the trial and will not be told what type of acupuncture they are receiving.

All patients will be treated with acupuncture a total of 12 times during an eight-week period, and will meet weekly with a psychiatrist to assess the severity of symptoms and any side-effects that may occur. A variety of measurements will be recorded by both patients and clinicians, including scores for depression and mania.

At the conclusion of the trial, the patients who received nonspecific acupuncture will be offered acupuncture intended to treat depression. If the treatment proves successful, Suppes and her colleagues plan to conduct further trials to determine whether acupuncture can be an effective long-term remedy, or even prevent further episodes of bipolar disorder from occurring. They also plan on publishing their research at a later date.

The Southwestern study is believed to be the first to evaluate acupuncture as an adjunct to medication for bipolar disorder, and will use the same treatment protocol employed in a similar study conducted at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in 1998. The Arizona program reported positive results on acupuncture, but that study examined its use in treating major, or unipolar, depression in women only.

For further information on the study, visit or contact UT-Southwestern's Bipolar Disorder Clinic and Research Program at (214) 648-7474.


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