New MRI acupuncture research shows mind-body connection


A concept in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and acupuncture is that the same symptoms can be caused by different factors and therefore the treatment for the same condition could be different depending on the individual. Imagine if you have a problem with always burning the dinner: you could try turning down the fire, adding more liquid, cooking the food for a shorter amount of time. Different changes but all result in a dinner that’s not charred and dry.


It is ironic then (to my eyes at least) that an article in Healthcare Medicine Institute reported that MRI acupuncture research showed a mind-body connection. 


Let me explain.

Criticism of acupuncture’s effectiveness has focused on the ability of sham acupuncture to produce clinical results. In clinical trials to show the effects of acupuncture, scientists perform needle stimulation at real acupuncture points, as well as some fake points which have no therapeutic purposes. It was noticed however that pain relief or reduction was noticed in subjects in both groups (individuals didn’t know whether they were receiving real or sham acupuncture). 


This provided a problem for the scientists: if the sham acupuncture managed to offer pain relief, then acupuncture as a therapy was most probably a placebo and more based on psychological factors. Critics jumped on that conclusion whilst acupuncturists claimed better trial design was needed. It still didn’t explain why sham acupuncture seemed to have a therapeutic effect.


Using MRI imaging, it showed that while sham acupuncture may superficially cause pain reduction, it wasn’t achieved by the same mechanisms as true acupuncture. Real acupuncture showed greater cortical activity and more importantly in different areas of the brain.


One result, two different ways.


So, it seems that just as there are sometimes different ways to treat the same symptom in TCM, clinical trials to see how acupuncture works is throwing up a similar concept. If it wasn’t for research like this, we would never have known that both true and sham acupuncture turns on different areas of the brains.


Photo credit: Vivian Chen via flickr

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