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Acupuncture for depression?

Researchers at the School of Psychiatry at the University of NSW report finding that acupuncture produces significant changes in parts of the brain that regulate emotional states and is a biologically plausible treatment for depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

18 Oct 2010

Researchers at the School of Psychiatry at the University of NSW report finding that acupuncture produces significant changes in parts of the brain that regulate emotional states and is a biologically plausible treatment for depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

In their study, they stimulated 10 healthy subjects with a fibre-optic infrared laser on four acupoints used for depression (LR14, CV14, LR8 and HT7) following the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. A control non-acupoint (sham point) was also stimulated in a random design.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to map the changes brought about by stimulating the acupoints in the prefrontal cortex and subcortical nuclei.

The subjects were unaware of the relative significance of different acupoints. The use of low-level laser acupuncture (which does not produce a skin sensation) permitted the subjects to be blinded to placebo stimulation, which is difficult to achieve with needle acupuncture.

A report of the study has been published in PLoS Online.

Study leader Prof Perminder Sachdev said that it was the first MRI study to find that laser stimulation of a suite of acupoints on the body in healthy individuals produces changes in brain regions that may be relevant to treating conditions such as depression.

It was a scientifically rigorous study in a controversial area, he said, and it would be followed up with a similar study in depressed individuals, and a clinical trial of laser acupuncture in depression.

Lead author Dr Im Quah-Smith said that the most consistently-reported finding in anti-depressant treatments was that they led to a normalisation of activity in the prefrontal cortex, with additional changes in the limbic cortex and the frontal lobe.

But, though fMRI clearly demonstrated the effects of acupuncture in the brains of healthy people, it remained to be seen whether or not the results would be different in a sample of clinically depressed subjects, she said.

“We also cannot predict from these results whether or not any acupoint should be preferred over others for clinical use. Both these questions warrant further investigation.”


Published: 18 Oct 2010