Background: The research on brain plasticity has fascinated researchers for decades. Use/training serves as an instrumental factor to influence brain neuroplasticity. Parallel to acquisition of behavioral expertise, extensive use/training is concomitant with substantial changes of cortical structure. Acupuncturists, serving as a model par excellence to study tactile-motor and emotional regulation plasticity, receive intensive training in national medical schools following standardized training protocol. Moreover, their behavioral expertise is corroborated during long-term clinical practice. Although our previous study reported functional plastic brain changes in the acupuncturists, whether or not structural plastic changes occurred in acupuncturists is yet elusive.
Methodology/principal findings: Cohorts of acupuncturists (N = 22) and non-acupuncturists (N = 22) were recruited. Behavioral tests were delivered to assess the acupuncturists' behavioral expertise. The results confirmed acupuncturists' tactile-motor skills and emotion regulation proficiency compared to non-acupuncturists. Using the voxel-based morphometry technique, we revealed larger grey matter volumes in acupuncturists in the hand representation of the contralateral primary somatosensory cortex (SI), the right lobule V/VI and the bilateral ventral anterior cingulate cortex/ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Grey matter volumes of the SI and Lobule V/VI positively correlated with the duration of acupuncture practice.
Conclusions: To our best knowledge, this study provides first evidence for the anatomical alterations in acupuncturists, which would possibly be the neural correlates underlying acupuncturists' exceptional skills. On one hand, we suggest our findings may have ramifications for tactile-motor rehabilitation. On the other hand, our results in emotion regulation domain may serve as a target for our future studies, from which we can understand how modulations of aversive emotions elicited by empathic pain develop in the context of expertise. Future longitudinal study is necessary to establish the presence and direction of a causal link between practice/use and brain anatomy.