September 14, 2010
Acupuncture has been shown to prompt changes in the "mood regulation" area of the brain, pointing to a possible and potent treatment for depression.
The Australian-first research, conducted at the University of NSW, took in ten healthy patients who each underwent MRI brain scans while they received the ancient Chinese therapy.
Dr Im Quah-Smith said it was the first study to map acupuncture-related changes in brain functioning, while the study was designed to include an extra step to boost its scientific rigour.
"This the is the first time that a whole series of (acupuncture) points have been used together and the sum effect has been measured in the brain," Dr Quah-Smith told AAP on Tuesday.
"... We were interested to see if we use these points would it help any of our depressed patients? - and it would because it is working in the part of the brain that is inherently involved in mood regulation."
Dr Quah-Smith said despite a growing body of evidence showing acupuncture to have a detectable effect on the body, there were many in the medical community who viewed it as a "highly alternative" therapy supported only by "poorly designed trials".
One of the major stumbling blocks to conducting a gold-standard randomised, double-blinded and placebo-controlled trial was that it was very difficult to administer a "sham" version of acupuncture.
"A true placebo has to be administered in such a way that you are not contributing to some of the real acupuncture effect," Dr Quah-Smith said.
She avoided this problem by using a form of laser acupuncture that can be dialled down to a level where it does not produce a skin sensation, but still exerts the necessary pressure on the acupuncture point.
"It is beautiful, because in a clinical situation you can have the delivery of the acupuncture without recipients knowing whether it is real or not real," Dr Quah-Smith said.
The study participants showed significant differences in their brain functioning when they were unknowingly receiving the acupuncture treatment, compared to when they were not.
Dr Quah-Smith said while the scans clearly demonstrated an effect in the brains of healthy people, it remained to be seen whether the results would be different in a sample of clinically depressed subjects.
"We also cannot predict from these results whether any acupoint should be preferred over others for clinical use. Both of these questions warrant further investigation."
The research results are published in the journal PLoS Online.
© 2010 AAP