Acupuncture may help with inflammation and sepsis, a life-threatening condition seen in COVID-19 patients
A previous study published in the journal Nature Medicine had indicated that acupuncture can reduce inflammation in mice by stimulating the vagal-adrenal axis
In recent research, Dr Quifu Ma, a professor of neurobiology, and his team at the Harvard Medical School have found that a modern form of acupuncture can be used to reduce inflammation and sepsis in mice.
The study published in the peer-reviewed journal Neuron suggests that electroacupuncture, which is a modern form of acupuncture, is effective as a preventive therapy for inflammation. When given after the onset of the cytokine storm, it can produce negative results. The location of therapy is also crucial for positive effects.
Acupuncture is originally a part of traditional Chinese medicine. The process involves tiny needles being inserted at specific points, called acupoints, in the body to balance the flow of chi or energy and promote healing. It is also used in Western medicine to manage pain and gastrointestinal disorders.
Sepsis and inflammation may have received a lot of public attention during the COVID-19 pandemic but they are associated with a lot of other infections and diseases as well.
Inflammation is our body’s response to injury. However, uncontrolled inflammation can damage healthy cells. Cytokines are proteins that mediate inflammation. A cytokine storm happens when our body releases too many cytokines. Widespread inflammation leads to the organ damaging and life-threatening condition called sepsis. Every year, about 30 million people in the world die of sepsis.
Acupuncture points are believed to be located on specific areas of the body, which are connected to specific body organs through nerves. When you press one area it stimulates the connected area or organ to heal it. However, so far, experts don’t know how exactly this nerve action works.
A previous study published in the journal Nature Medicine had indicated that acupuncture can reduce inflammation in mice by stimulating the vagal-adrenal axis. The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body. It oversees a lot of body functions. The vagal-adrenal axis is a signalling pathway through which the vagus nerve stimulates the release of dopamine from the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are two small triangle-shaped glands located above kidneys. They produce various hormones including the cortisol, dopamine and the fight-or-flight hormones aldosterone and non-aldosterone.
A 2016 study pointed out the benefits of vagus stimulation in reducing inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. RA is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system starts to attack their joints, leading to joint inflammation (pain and swelling in joints).
It was both these studies that had spurred Ma’s curiosity to conduct his own research.
The latest study
In the latest study, Dr Ma and his team examine the effect of electroacupuncture on mice. The process involves the use of thin electrodes that are inserted into the skin and the connective tissue. Unlike the traditional acupuncture, electroacupuncture provides better control over the intensity of nerve stimulation.
The team targetted two things - the chromaffin cells in the adrenal gland that produce adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine and the noradrenergic neurons that release noradrenaline. The noradrenergic neurons are located in the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) and connected to the spleen through nerve fibres. They used a special genetic tool to produce mice with and without chromaffin cells and noradrenergic neurons to know if these play a role in inflammation.
Mice were given bacterial toxins to induce cytokine storm. Here are the findings of the study:
- When electroacupuncture was given on the hind leg, it activated the vagus-adrenal axis and led to the release of dopamine from the chromaffin cells. Mice who got this therapy showed comparatively lower levels of inflammatory cytokines than mice that did not receive the therapy. This was evident from 60% of mice who survived as compared to 20% in the control group.
- When electroacupuncture was given on the hindleg along with an acupoint on the abdomen in mice with sepsis, it led to the activation of noradrenergic neurons and release of noradrenaline.
- When the electroacupuncture was given before the development of cytokine storm, the mice fared better. However, when it was given at the peak of cytokine storm, the therapy led to an increase in inflammation and higher mortality.
In a news release by the Harvard Medical School, Dr Ma suggested that if this therapy is proven to work in further studies, one day we would be using electroacupuncture as a versatile therapy for inflammation and sepsis in intensive care units.
For more information, read our article on Cytokine storm: symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment.
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