Research on the neurophysiological mechanisms of acupuncture: review of selected studies and methodological issues

J Altern Complement Med. 2001;7 Suppl 1:S121-7. doi: 10.1089/107555301753393896.


This presentation reviews studies that contribute to an understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms of acupuncture. A 1973 study, using volunteer medical students, looked into acupuncture's analgesic effect on experimentally induced pain and suggests that humoral factors may mediate acupuncture-induced analgesia. In a study of the possible role of the cerebrospinal fluid transmission of pain suppression effects of acupuncture, cerebrospinal fluid from acupuncture-treated rabbits was infused into recipient rabbits. The analgesic effect was observed in the recipient rabbits, suggesting that acupuncture-induced analgesia may be mediated by substances released in the cerebrospinal fluid. Studies of electroacupuncture in rats revealed that both low-frequency and high-frequency stimulation could induce analgesia, but that there are differential effects of low- and high-frequency acupuncture on the types of endorphins released. In another study, low-frequency electroacupuncture, given as median nerve stimulation in cats, was shown to protect the myocardium by inhibiting sympathetic pressor response and increasing myocardial oxygen demand. The development of neuroimaging tools, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), make noninvasive studies of acupuncture's effects on human brain activity possible. Studies using PET have shown that thalamic asymmetry present among patients suffering from chronic pain was reduced after the patients underwent acupuncture treatment. Other studies, using fMRI, have pointed to relationships between particular acupoints and visual-cortex activation. These powerful new tools open the possibility to new scientific studies of this ancient therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Analgesia* / methods
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electroacupuncture* / methods
  • Endorphins / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Humans
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain Management


  • Endorphins