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Study maps acupuncture’s effects on brain

Feb. 4, 2010
Courtesy University of York
and World Science staff

New re­search about the ef­fects of ac­u­punc­ture on the brain may shed light on the com­plex mech­a­nisms of this East­ern heal­ing tech­nique, sci­en­tists say.

Ac­u­punc­ture is a tra­di­tion­al Chin­ese meth­od in which thin nee­dles are in­sert­ed in­to the skin at se­lected spots to treat var­i­ous ail­ments. 

Prac­ti­tion­ers say the pro­ce­dure helps br­ing the body’s en­er­gy in­to bal­ance. West­ern sci­en­tists tend to be skep­ti­cal of such ex­plana­t­ions; yet re­gard­less of the rea­sons be­hind any ef­fects of ac­u­punc­ture, cer­tain stud­ies have in­di­cat­ed that it is help­ful for some con­di­tions.

The new stu­dy, by re­search­ers at the Uni­vers­ity of York and the Hull York Med­i­cal School in the U.K., in­di­cates that ac­u­punc­ture changes the ac­ti­vity in spe­cif­ic brain struc­tures. When a pa­tient re­ceives ac­u­punc­ture treat­ment, tra­di­tion holds that a sensa­t­ion called “d­e­qi” can re­sult. Sci­en­tif­ic anal­y­sis shows “d­e­qi” is as­so­ci­at­ed with a deac­tiva­t­ion of pain-linked brain ar­eas, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors of the new stu­dy, pub­lished in the jour­nal Brain Re­search.

“Whether such brain deac­tiva­t­ions con­sti­tute a mech­an­ism which un­der­lies or con­tri­butes to the ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect of ac­u­punc­ture is an in­tri­guing pos­si­bil­ity which re­quires fur­ther re­search,” added neu­ro­sci­ent­ist Aziz As­ghar, of the York Neu­ro­imag­ing Cen­tre and the Hull York Med­i­cal School.

Ac­u­punc­ture’s ef­fectiveness re­mains in dis­pute, and rid­dles re­main.

Cu­ri­ous­ly, some re­cent stud­ies have sug­gested that a sort of sham ac­u­punc­ture is just as ef­fective as reg­u­lar ac­u­punc­ture for treat­ment of dis­com­fort. In the “sim­u­lat­ed” ac­u­punc­ture, nee­dles are stuck in the skin at places that aren’t those man­dat­ed by the tra­di­tion­al ac­u­punc­ture sys­tem.

Al­though such re­sults would seem to sug­gest ac­u­punc­ture’s ef­fects are mainly psy­cho­log­i­cal, oth­er stud­ies have found the tech­nique works bet­ter than con­ven­tion­al West­ern treat­ments against con­di­tions in­clud­ing back pain and cancer-related nau­sea.

Last sum­mer, fol­low­ing re­search at York, the U.K.’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Health and Clin­i­cal Ex­cel­lence rec­om­mended ac­u­punc­ture as a treat­ment op­tion for low­er back pain. Clin­i­cal tri­als at the uni­vers­ity are al­so in­ves­ti­gat­ing the tech­nique’s ef­fectiveness for Ir­ri­ta­ble Bow­el Syn­drome and de­pres­sion. 

Re­cent U.S. stud­ies al­so show ac­u­punc­ture can be an ef­fective treat­ment for mi­graines and os­te­o­ar­thri­tis of the knee, ac­cord­ing to the U.K. group, whose mem­bers say the new re­search could help ac­u­punc­ture be­come more ac­cept­ed as a treat­ment op­tion for a num­ber of con­di­tions.


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New research about the effects of acupuncture on the brain may shed light on the complex mechanisms of this Eastern healing technique, scientists say. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese method in which thin needles are inserted into the skin at selected spots to treat various ailments. Practitioners say the procedure helps bring the body’s energy into balance. Western scientists tend to be skeptical of such explanations; yet regardless of the reasons behind any effects of acupuncture, certain studies have indicated that it is helpful for some conditions. The new study, by researchers at the University of York and the Hull York Medical School in the U.K., indicates that acupuncture changes the activity in specific brain structures. When a patient receives acupuncture treatment, tradition holds that a sensation called “deqi” can result. Scientific analysis shows “deqi” is associated with a deactivation of pain-linked brain areas, according to the authors of the new study, published in the journal Brain Research. “Whether such brain deactivations constitute a mechanism which underlies or contributes to the therapeutic effect of acupuncture is an intriguing possibility which requires further research,” added neuroscientist Aziz Asghar, of the York Neuroimaging Centre and the Hull York Medical School. Acupuncture’s effectiveness remains in dispute, and riddles remain. Curiously, some recent studies have suggested that a sort of sham acupuncture is just as effective as regular acupuncture for for pain treatment. In the “simulated” acupuncture, needles are stuck in the skin at places that aren’t those mandated by the traditional acupuncture system. Although such results would seem to suggest that acupuncture’s effects are mainly psychological, other studies have found that acupuncture works better than conventional Western treatments against conditions including back pain and cancer-related nausea. Last summer, following research at York, the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommended acupuncture as a treatment option for lower back pain. Clinical trials at the university are also investigating the technique’s effectiveness for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and depression. Recent U.S. studies also show acupuncture can be an effective treatment for migraines and osteoarthritis of the knee, according to the U.K. group, whose members say the new research could help let acupuncture become more accepted as a treatment option for a number of conditions.