Two pieces of new research have been published in China that show how treatment of different acupuncture points affects the brain in different ways. This work leads on from previous work in the field that is beginning to map out how the different pressure points on the body affect the brain.

Sham acupuncture – the insertion of needles in random areas of the body – also stimulates different areas of the brain and is known to also be effective, but now it can be shown how sham acupuncture is less so than traditional acupuncture in terms of stimulation of certain areas within the brain. It is well known to many acupuncturists that precision in needling technique creates dramatically better results, but this is difficult to demonstrate to the scientific community because of how most experiments are undertaken. “Recent criticisms concerning the effectiveness of acupuncture have focused on the ability of sham acupuncture to produce clinical results. However, MRI studies show that true acupuncture produces clinical results by different cortical mechanisms than sham acupuncture.” (reference)

Furthermore, when acupuncture points on the same nerve pathways but different meridians (in Chinese medical theory these are energy channels) were needled, different areas of the brain responded in different ways, thus creating different physiological responses; indicating that stimulation of the acupoints cannot be categorised as purely a nerve response.

Brain scanning technology such as MRI and PET scans first brought us evidence of acupuncture affecting brain activity through the fascinating and brilliant work of Zang-Hee Cho and his colleagues in 1998, where he discovered that stimulation of acupuncture points for eye disorders as suggested by ancient Oriental literature repeatedly created the exact same response in the occipital lobes of the brain (relating to eyesight) to direct light. Needling  slightly away from the point yielded no discernable response to the visual cortex (Figure 3 from linked article above).

Furthermore, when alternating light and darkness when exposing the retina to direct light (relating to the mystical theory of yin and yang), some volunteers showed exact opposing brain responses to the others, which related exactly to their opposing physiological traits (relating to ancient yinyang theory), giving weight to scientific correlation with this ancient system of medicine which is well over 3000 years old, and giving weight to the theory that harmony can be found by balancing the two opposing polarities.

In 1999 a research paper came out that proved that the brain’s pain impulse responses are dramatically reduced (by up to 70%) by stimulation of an often used point in the hand for reducing pain.

The image below is from research in 2002 by Cho into the relief of pain in the neural responses in the brain with and without acupuncture, and with sham acupuncture.

acupuncture mri

A – Pain response in the brain / B – Real acupuncture + pain / C – Sham acupuncture + pain

Research has already found that acupuncture increases the blood flow to the thalamus, the area of the brain that relays pain and other sensory messages, thanks to the research of Alavi at the University of Pennsylvania.

And in the 1950s, the work of Nakatani showed that acupuncture points along the meridian of a diseased organ would test weaker electrically than the rest of the surrounding area, giving an indication, for example, that there is a problem with the organ that the meridian is governed by. Indeed, channel palpation is the art of diagnosing disease in a patient by feeling along the meridians to discern deficiencies, blockages and other imbalances.

In the 1970s, Becker’s research brought out his theory that the positive and negative electrical qualities of the acupoints act as a communication tool for the central nervous system and the brain. Interestingly, it was already known that the skin acts as a battery (with the outside of skin negative and inside positive), and Becker found the acupuncture point was more highly charged than the surrounding skin. His theory all but implies that the needle acts as a diode by which the electricity of the nervous system is activated in a particular way.