Put a pin in that

2 minute read

Could this be the long-lost neuroanatomical basis for acupuncture?

Your Back Page correspondent has always maintained a stoutly sceptical stance towards everything that falls under the banner of alternative medicine, including traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture.

The wonders ascribed to the practice of sticking pins in people don’t need to be listed here.

Famously “used for millennia” yet lacking an obvious physiological mechanism, acupuncture is either medical manna from heaven or little better than homeopathy, depending who you ask.

So it is with an open mind that the BP presents this study from Harvard Medical School neuroscientists, led by Professor Qiufu Ma, who claim to have found the precise neurons required for acupuncture to relieve inflammation using the vagus-adrenal axis.

This builds on an earlier study in which the researchers fought off cytokine storm in mice using electroacupuncture to activate the vagus-adrenal axis, inducing secretion of dopamine from the chromaffin cells of the adrenal glands. The technique worked when they stimulated the mice’s hind legs, but not their abdomens.

In the present study, the authors identify the precise kind of nerve cells that make it work in back legs but not bellies: PROKR2Cre-marked sensory neurons, to be specific, which are three to four times more numerous in hindlimb fascia than in the abdomen. When they switched these neurons off in mice, they did not get the response.

They also determined that these neurons are denser in the anterior muscles of the hind legs than the posterior. So, assuming that the organisation of neurons is similar across mammal species, get your next array of needles stuck in the front of your thighs.

The team is reportedly keen to test their findings on humans with inflammation caused by things like, uh, covid-19.

Open mind or not, the prospect of using acupuncture in a covid ward reminds us irresistibly of this:

If you see a neuroanatomical basis for something, electronically stimulate the inbox of felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au

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