Is acupuncture getting on a scientific foundation?
The history of acupuncture – a very popular method of traditional Chinese medicine – dates back thousands of years. However, its biological basis has not been practically studied. And recently, in experiments on laboratory mice, it was finally possible to find out what could be hidden under the acupuncture point, which is affected when relieving inflammation.
Acupuncture, or acupuncture, is the stimulation of special points on the body using thin needles that are injected into the skin and underlying tissues. In the ancient East, it was believed that such a procedure affects the flow of qi vitality in the so-called energy meridians. Modern medical science is skeptical about the method, the mechanism of action of which is unknown, and the effectiveness is not confirmed by objective experimental and clinical data.
Nevertheless, in recent decades, acupuncture has been increasingly used in Western medicine to treat inflammation. It is believed that mechanical stimulation of certain points on the body triggers the transmission of nerve signals, which change the work of different organs.
In 2014, researchers from the USA and Mexico found that the use of electroacupuncture (a modern "electric" version of traditional acupuncture) to stimulate the sciatic nerve reduces the level of systemic inflammation in laboratory mice. This happens in several stages. First, the vagus nerve is activated, which mediates the synthesis of the biologically active substance dopamine in the adrenal glands. In turn, dopamine, acting through type D1 receptors, suppresses the production of cytokines – molecules that provoke inflammation.
Scientists from China and the USA found that the anti-inflammatory effect of electroacupuncture is observed when exposed to the hind limbs of mice, but not to the abdominal area, and suggested that some specific group of neurons may be responsible for this. And recently they conducted a new series of experiments on mice to test this hypothesis.
Article by Liu et al. A neuroanatomic basis for electroacupuncture to drive the vagal–adrenal axis is published in the journal Nature.
The researchers identified a small subset of sensory neurons characterized by the presence of PROKR2Cre receptors, and there were 3-4 times more such nerve cells in the tissues of the hind limb than in the abdomen. Then the scientists obtained mice that lack similar neurons, and found out that electroacupuncture in this case does not work as an anti-inflammatory.
In another experiment, the researchers directly stimulated neurons with PROKR2Cre receptors using optogenetics and observed an effect similar to electroacupuncture.
Thus, thanks to these results, scientists were able to give a neuroanatomical explanation of the selectivity and specificity of this acupuncture point. In other words, they were able to explain exactly where it is located and what the intensity of exposure should be in order to achieve a therapeutic effect.
So far, the study has been conducted only on mice – the next step is planned to test electroacupuncture on patients with inflammatory processes. In particular, the research group is interested in the so–called cytokine storm, a severe systemic inflammation that can develop with a number of infections, including COVID-19, as well as against the background of certain types of cancer therapy.
Scientists hope that their work will advance the scientific understanding of the action of acupuncture, and this ancient method of treatment will rightfully take its place in modern medical practice.
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