Published yesterday this thoughtful article about the endorphins that acupuncture needles release, and how their effects can now be measured. It also describes how the results of acupuncture differ from placebo effects. Interesting.
“A new generation of brain imaging studies is suggesting that perhaps researchers should refine their testing methods. There are now several trials showing that even when patients in acupuncture and placebo groups report similar drops in pain, the physical effects of treatment can be very different.
For example, Richard Harris, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues used brain scans to investigate whether acupuncture triggers an endorphin hit in the same way that placebos do. They gave fibromyalgia patients – a condition characterised by chronic, widespread pain – either real or placebo acupuncture (using retractable needles at non-acupuncture points) then scanned their brains using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. PET scans can’t see endorphins directly, but can detect the opioid receptors that these molecules target. Opioid receptors are present on the surface of nerve cells in the brain. When “locked” by endorphins (or other opioid molecules such as morphine), they prevent the cell from sending pain signals. In Harris’s experiment, a drop in the number of free, or unlocked, receptors in the patients’ brains would show that endorphins had been released.
After a single acupuncture session, as well as over a month-long course of treatment, both groups of patients reported a similar reduction in pain. In the placebo group, the PET scans did indeed show fewer free opioid receptors in areas of the brain associated with the regulation of pain, suggesting their pain relief was caused by endorphins. Harris assumed that in the real acupuncture group, he’d see something similar. “I expected that we would probably see the exact same thing between real and sham acupuncture, or that acupuncture might do it better,” he says. Instead, he saw the opposite. Within 45 minutes of the needling session, the number of free opioid receptors in the patients’ brains didn’t fall; it surged. “I was completely floored,” he says. Whatever the acupuncture was doing, it wasn’t working as a placebo.”
Still – the photo is ridiculous! Come on Guardian picture desk -you can do better than this!