The study of the mechanism of acupuncture action was revolutionized by the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Over the past decade, our fMRI studies of healthy subjects have contributed substantially to elucidating the central effect of acupuncture on the human brain. These studies have shown that acupuncture stimulation, when associated with sensations comprising deqi, evokes deactivation of a limbic-paralimbic-neocortical network, which encompasses the limbic system, as well as activation of somatosensory brain regions. These networks closely match the default mode network and the anti-correlated task-positive network described in the literature. We have also shown that the effect of acupuncture on the brain is integrated at multiple levels, down to the brainstem and cerebellum. Our studies support the hypothesis that the effect of acupuncture on the brain goes beyond the effect of attention on the default mode network or the somatosensory stimulation of acupuncture needling. The amygdala and hypothalamus, in particular, show decreased activation during acupuncture stimulation that is not commonly associated with default mode network activity. At the same time, our research shows that acupuncture stimulation needs to be done carefully, limiting stimulation when the resulting sensations are very strong or when sharp pain is elicited. When acupuncture induced sharp pain, our studies show that the deactivation was attenuated or reversed in direction. Our results suggest that acupuncture mobilizes the functionally anti-correlated networks of the brain to mediate its actions, and that the effect is dependent on the psychophysical response. In this work we also discuss multiple avenues of future research, including the role of neurotransmitters, the effect of different acupuncture techniques, and the potential clinical application of our research findings to disease states including chronic pain, major depression, schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer's disease.
Published by Elsevier B.V.