Nucleus ambiguus cholinergic neurons activated by acupuncture: relation to enkephalin

Brain Res. 2012 Mar 9;1442:25-35. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2012.01.006. Epub 2012 Jan 12.


Acupuncture regulates autonomic function. Our previous studies have shown that electroacupuncture (EA) at the Jianshi-Neiguan acupoints (P5-P6, underlying the median nerve) inhibits central sympathetic outflow and attenuates excitatory cardiovascular reflexes, in part, through an opioid mechanism. It is unknown if EA at these acupoints influences the parasympathetic system. Thus, using c-Fos expression, we examined activation of nucleus ambiguus (NAmb) neurons by EA, their relation to cholinergic (preganglionic parasympathetic) neurons and those containing enkephalin. To enhance detection of cell bodies containing enkephalin, colchicine (90-100 μg/kg) was administered into the subarachnoid space of cats 30 h prior to EA or sham-operated controls for EA. Following bilateral barodenervation and cervical vagotomy, either EA for 30 min at P5-P6 acupoints or control stimulation (needle placement at P5-P6 without stimulation) was applied. While perikarya containing enkephalin were observed in some medullary nuclei (e.g., raphé), only enkephalin-containing neuronal processes were found in the NAmb. Compared to controls (n=4), more c-Fos immunoreactivity, located principally in close proximity to fibers containing enkephalin was noted in the NAmb of EA-treated cats (n=5; P<0.01). Moreover, neurons double-labeled with c-Fos and choline acetyltransferase in the NAmb were identified in EA-treated, but not control animals. These data demonstrate for the first time that EA activates preganglionic parasympathetic neurons in the NAmb. Because of their close proximity, these EA-activated neurons likely interact with nerve fibers containing enkephalin. These results suggest that EA at the P5-P6 acupoints has the potential to influence parasympathetic outflow and cardiovascular function, likely through an enkephalinergic mechanism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Points
  • Animals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cats
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase / metabolism
  • Cholinergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Electroacupuncture*
  • Enkephalins / metabolism*
  • Heart Rate
  • Medulla Oblongata / cytology*
  • Medulla Oblongata / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Random Allocation


  • Enkephalins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase