Some people think of acupuncture as a wacky Eastern medicine, without any basis in science, while others consider it to be a crucial alternative to pain-relief medicine. Whatever the perspective, acupuncture use in the United States is on the rise, and the medical establishment has been taking notice. Now scientists are using advanced brain-imaging techniques to study the ancient practice -- and have begun to uncover some tantalizing clues about how it works.
Two large controlled trials of acupuncture for osteoarthritis pain, published in 2004 and 2005, found that the practice is more effective than a sham treatment. Another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, found acupuncture to be effective for migraines; however, patients experienced the same level of pain relief regardless of whether needles were placed in traditional acupuncture points or other spots.
"Acupuncture has been shown to have some therapeutic effect, but we have an incomplete understanding of the basic science that supports it," says Bruce Rosen, director of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, within the Harvard-MIT division of Health Sciences and Technology. Rosen and colleagues are part of a small number of scientists using brain-imaging techniques to understand what acupuncture does to the brain, as well as which characteristics, such as needle placement, are important for beneficial effects.