Acupuncture has spread around the world since originating in China but conventional western medicine has remained steadfastly skeptical. Although there is now good evidence that acupuncture can relieve pain, many of the other health benefits acupuncturists claim are on shakier ground.


Despite acupuncture’s 4,000-year history, little is known about the biological pathways that enable carefully placed needles to relieve pain in many patients. While controversy remains surrounding acupuncture, in certain quarters, researchers have determined the compound adenosine is key to acupuncture’s effectiveness.  In a paper published in Nature neuroscience, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center identified the molecule adenosine as a central player in parlaying some of the effects of acupuncture in the body.


This study focused on determining the effects of acupuncture on the peripheral nervous system, the nerves in our bodies that aren’t a part of the central nervous system-the spinal cord and brain.  


It’s cause quite a stir across the internet.  The argument against the study’s validity, according to the non-believers is the results are attributed to the “ placebo effect.” But they are misinformed—the placebo effect is present in humans, not animals.  It is the effect of the mind’s belief that a treatment will work.


The latest research gives doctors a sound explanation of how sticking needles into the skin can alleviate, rather than exacerbate, pain. The discovery will challenge the view, widely held among scientists, that any benefits a patient feels after acupuncture are due purely to the placebo effect.


The research contributes to a multitude of studies that have demonstrated acupuncture’s ability to trigger signals, that stimulates the brain to release natural pain-killing endorphins.


The research focuses on adenosine, a neurotransmitter known for its role in regulating sleep, for its effects on the heart, and for its anti-inflammatory properties.  It also acts as a natural painkiller, becoming active in the skin after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and ease pain.


The scientists gave each mouse a sore paw by injecting it with an inflammatory chemical. The researchers performed acupuncture treatments on mice with discomfort in one paw. The mice each received a 30-minute acupuncture treatment at a well known acupuncture point near the knee, with very fine needles rotated gently every five minutes, similar to the way humans are treated with acupuncture. The scientists recorded how quickly each mouse pulled its sore paw away from a small bristly brush. The more pain the mice were in, the faster they pulled away.


The levels of adenosine in the tissue adjacent to the needle, rose 24-fold in the tissue fluid surrounding the needle.


Researchers mimicked acupuncture in mice by placing and gradually rotating a needle at a point just below the knee, for 30 minutes. The mice injected with an inflammatory substance in their paws and given acupuncture displayed fewer pain symptoms than mice that didn’t get acupuncture.


Half of the mice lacked a gene that is needed to make adenosine receptors, which are found on major nerves. But those that were genetically engineered, lacking  certain adenosine receptors failed to experience any benefit from the acupuncture, additional proof of adenosine’s role. Also enzymes that block adenosine’s break down enhanced acupuncture’s effectiveness,  tripling the level of adenosine near the needle and extending pain relief from about one hour to about three hours.


Regarding adenosine, the researchers observed:

  1. In mice with adenosine levels, acupuncture reduced discomfort by two-thirds.
  2. In special “adenosine receptor knock-out mice” lacking adenosine receptors on their cells, acupuncture had no effect.
  3. When adenosine increased in the tissues, pain and discomfort decreased without acupuncture.


They also observed that during and following an acupuncture treatment, adenosine levels in the tissue approximating the needles was 24 times greater than before the treatment.


After the researchers became aware of adenosine’s role, they investigated the effects of a cancer drug called deoxycoformycin.  It’s actions prevent interferes with adenosine’s removal from cells.  Interestingly, this drug dramatically enhanced the effect of acupuncture treatment dramatically, almost tripling the accumulation of adenosine in the muscles and more than tripling the length of time the treatment was effective.


Researchers from Rochester, Boston University, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases contributed to the work, which was funded by the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Program and the National Institutes of Health.


According to the lead researcher, this study adds to the body of scientific literature validating acupuncture, says neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard. Her team recently presented the study at a scientific meeting, Purines 2010, in Barcelona.


“The view that acupuncture has little benefit beyond the placebo effect has really hampered research into the technique,” said Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester medical centre in New York state, who led the study.


“Acupuncture has been a mainstay of medical treatment in certain parts of the world for 4,000 years, but because it has not been understood completely, many people have remained skeptical,” says Nedergaard, codirector of the University’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine, where the research was conducted.


“In this work, we provide information about one physical mechanism through which acupuncture reduces pain in the body,” she adds.


“Some people think any work in this area is junk research, but I think that’s wrong. I was really surprised at the arrogance of some of my colleagues. We can benefit from what has been learned over many thousands of years,” Nedergaard said.


“I believe we’ve found the main mechanism by which acupuncture relieves pain. Adenosine is a very potent anti-inflammatory compound and most chronic pain is caused by inflammation.”


Quite honestly, in my opinion I believe its continued use over 4,000 years is sufficient validation.   The paradigm of Chinese medicine is quite different from the one that serves as the foundation of Western allopathic medicine.  And therein lies the discord.


The Chinese system recognizes the meridians, specific points on the body’s surface, where the needles are inserted.  They are circuits that act as channels allowing the entry of chi,  the universal life force into the body.


According to ancient Chinese theory, twelve pairs of meridian channels exist within the body.  Traditional acupuncture theory believes life energy flows regularly through the body along channels entering and leaving the body at specific points.  Each meridian pair governs the flow of chi for a particular organ system.  To a certain degree, these pairs correspond with the physiological organs.  For example, there are splenic, heart, liver and kidney meridians.  Imbalances and blockages of the system often happen before the development of physical disease.  Early detection and correction of the energetic imbalances can prevent such development.  Acupuncture can facilitate the healing of existing physical disease.  


In the West, the meridians were never believed to actually exist, until the research of a Korean scientist proved there were physical forms corresponding with the meridians.


Professor Kim Bong Han conducted a series of studies using rabbits to determine the presence of the meridians.  In the early 1960s,  after several years of research, he published five research papers between 1960 and 1965. He injected a radioactive substance into surrounding tissue and analyzed the results using a specialized technique (microautoradiography), he found the radioactive substance was actively take up by a microscopic duct-like tubule system.  These structures followed the pathways of classical acupuncture meridians.  Concentrations of the radioactive substance in the tissue of the surrounding area were negligible.


And when he injected the structure, the concentrations of the radioactive substance in the tissue of the surrounding area were negligible.  This finding suggested that the meridian system was independent of the circulatory system.


Dr. Han found that the tubular system is divided into a superficial and deep system.  And very interestingly he fund that these structures reached the nucleus of cells (the site where our genes/DNA resides). He also discovered higher concentrations of compounds that are extremely important to  cell function-DNA, RNA, amino acids, hyaluronic acid, 16 types of free nucleotides, adrenaline, corticosteroids, estrogen, and other hormonal substances, were present in levels much greater than those normally found in the blood stream.


In one study he cut the meridian supplying a frog’s liver and evaluated the changes in the liver tissue. Shortly after severing the meridian, the liver cells became swollen and very congested. Within three days, the entire liver began to slowly die.


He concluded that the meridian system not only inter-linked within itself, but appeared to interconnect with the nucleus of all cells.  He also learned that in the embryonic chick, meridian ducts were formed within 15 hours of conception-before the most rudimentary organs were formed. 


This led him to theorize that the meridians exert an influence upon the spatial organization of the cells within each organ during development and throughout life.  More recent research by French researcher, Pierre de Vernejoul, conducted similar experiments in 1985.  He also injected a radioactive substance into the acupuncture points of patients and documented that it moved along the classical Chinese acupuncture meridian pathways 30 centimeters in 4 to 6 minutes. Other scientists have confirmed Kim’s findings in humans.


Additional studies have demonstrated differences in the electrical, electromagnetic and electronographic qualities of the acupuncture points.