Posted September 4, 2014 by Bernard J. Baars in acupuncture

Acupuncture triggers neurotransmitters in the body

The 12 meridians of traditional Chinese medicine, along with their claimed health properties.

The 12 meridians of traditional Chinese medicine, along with their claimed health properties.

It’s been thirty years since Western medicine started to take Chinese acupuncture seriously, as a direct result of President Nixon’s “opening to China” in the 1970s. American doctors who visited hospitals in China after that improvement in relations were amazed to observe patients during surgery who seemed fully conscious without showing any signs of pain.

Since that time, the Western medical and scientific world has been intrigued by acupuncture — and really by a host of unexpected Chinese medical treatments that do not seem to work by the known physiology of the body. In Western physiology, for example, there is no known basis for the “twelve meridians” of Chinese medicine, which are thought to run the elaborate pain senses of the body.

The trouble with folk medicine generally is that human beings are often very vulnerable to suggestion — placebo effects.

(The word “placebo” means “I please,” because the body acts almost as if to please us by making the symptoms go away.

About a quarter of the normal population rate as ‘Highly Suggestible” on standard hypnotizability scales, and smaller number of people can do increasingly spectacular hypnotic tasks, like hallucinating a fly buzzing around their heads, or even learning to behave like multiple personality patients.

Hypnosis works well as an analgesic (pain killer) in some patients, but it does not have the solid reliability of pharmaceutical pain killers. Hypnosis is therefore not used as often as conventional anesthesia and analgesia. Surgeons do not want to run the risk of anesthetics failing in the middle of an operation.

Chinese and Western researchers have now done a great many  acupuncture studies in animals — on the premise that we don’t have to worry about placebo effects in mice and rats due to  hypnotic suggestions. Pain perception is a deep evolutionary part of the nervous system that extends at least to all mammals (and plausibly to birds, reptiles and … ???).

Electro acupuncture is especially useful, because the amplitude, frequency, and location of the needles can be precisely controlled. In traditional acupuncture practitioners often rotate needles between their hands, which makes it harder to be sure what exactly is happening.

As an added precaution, a typical acupuncture experiment in compares “real acupuncture points” on the body of a mouse to “sham points,” where Chinese medicine does not point to any healing effects. We are therefore testing specific locations on the body that fit Chinese medical tradition, compared to other points that do not. (See Figure 1).

The final advantage of animal studies is that we can analyze what’s happening in the body more easily — at least, according to today’s medical ethics. Western medicine assumes that the hope of major medical advances can justify surgery  and humane “sacrificing” of animals, to analyze neurons and synapses that may heal the body.

Today’s medical advances would not exist without animal studies. Ethics is in the eye of the beholder, but on balance, most people would probably agree on striking a balance. At the same time, all animal research must go through rigorous Animal Subjects Ethics approval, to understand the balance of pros and cons. We do not inflict pain without strong justification.

(After decades of considering pain perception to be limited to humans, the biomedical research community now believes the extensive evidence that mammals, birds, and probably reptiles are conscious of pain.)

This year, an article appeared in the journal ANESTHESIOLOGY by Zhang and co-authors (2014) summarizing ten years of electro acupuncture studies in animals.

The authors conclude that:

1. Three kinds of pain have been studied in the last decade — tissue injury  (inflammatory pain), nerve injury, and visceral pain (perceived in the inner organs of the body).

2. Electro acupuncture activates the nervous system differently in health than in illness.

This is probably related to famous Chinese medical categories like “hot” and “cold,” viewed as imbalances in the normal functioning of the body.

3. The research shows that electro acupuncture alleviates both sensory pain and emotional pain, which often go together.

Sensory pain tends to create emotional anxiety, anger and depression, so that both aspects are important.

4. The best electrical frequency for stimulation is between 2 and 10 cycles per second (Hz). In the brain, this would be called the alpha-theta range, but we do not know where the acupuncture effect is actually taking place — in the peripheral nerves that pervade the body, in the spinal cord, or in the brain. An electrode inserted into an acupuncture point on the inner wrist triggers activity in cortex as well — and maybe acupuncture effects really do their work in cortex.

(It’s all connected!)

5. The Big News is that a range of neuro chemicals are triggered off by specific point stimulation, supporting traditional Chinese medical claims. These neurochemicals include natural opioids, similar to endorphins and medical opiates. (Opium and its derivatives).

6. Further Big News is that acupuncture lowers pro-inflammatory molecules in the body — a major source of pain. This suggests that “needling” in specific part of the body has very specific molecular effects.

7. Other Big Molecules that are evoked by electro acupuncture are serotonin, norepinephrine, and NMDA in the spinal cord.

These neuromolecules have multiple important roles in the brain, the spinal cord, and the periphery.

8. A mix of e-acupunture and low dosages of conventional pain medications allows for good pain reduction without having to use large dosages of drugs.

Pain medications can have unwanted side effects. If a patient can get along on a fraction of their normal dosages they will do better.

Our congratulations go to the authors, to Chinese medicine, and to ten years of devoted work to combine our two long healing traditions.

Bernard J. Baars