A neuroanatomical basis for electroacupuncture to drive the vagal-adrenal axis

Nature. 2021 Oct;598(7882):641-645. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-04001-4. Epub 2021 Oct 13.


Somatosensory autonomic reflexes allow electroacupuncture stimulation (ES) to modulate body physiology at distant sites1-6 (for example, suppressing severe systemic inflammation6-9). Since the 1970s, an emerging organizational rule about these reflexes has been the presence of body-region specificity1-6. For example, ES at the hindlimb ST36 acupoint but not the abdominal ST25 acupoint can drive the vagal-adrenal anti-inflammatory axis in mice10,11. The neuroanatomical basis of this somatotopic organization is, however, unknown. Here we show that PROKR2Cre-marked sensory neurons, which innervate the deep hindlimb fascia (for example, the periosteum) but not abdominal fascia (for example, the peritoneum), are crucial for driving the vagal-adrenal axis. Low-intensity ES at the ST36 site in mice with ablated PROKR2Cre-marked sensory neurons failed to activate hindbrain vagal efferent neurons or to drive catecholamine release from adrenal glands. As a result, ES no longer suppressed systemic inflammation induced by bacterial endotoxins. By contrast, spinal sympathetic reflexes evoked by high-intensity ES at both ST25 and ST36 sites were unaffected. We also show that optogenetic stimulation of PROKR2Cre-marked nerve terminals through the ST36 site is sufficient to drive the vagal-adrenal axis but not sympathetic reflexes. Furthermore, the distribution patterns of PROKR2Cre nerve fibres can retrospectively predict body regions at which low-intensity ES will or will not effectively produce anti-inflammatory effects. Our studies provide a neuroanatomical basis for the selectivity and specificity of acupoints in driving specific autonomic pathways.