In October, Clinic Director Dr Hugh MacPherson’s acupuncture research was featured on BBC2’s Trust Me, I’m a Doctor. This took the form of a neuroimaging study trial, in which a person’s brain was scanned while Hugh performed acupuncture on them. The images from the scanning would give a visual picture of how acupuncture is processed in the brain. The aim of the exercise was to test how acupuncture might help relieve the experience of pain.
The BBC mini-trial followed on from previous studies of acupuncture and pain. In 2012 Hugh was part of a large study, involving over 17000 patients, which showed that acupuncture is more than a placebo (1). A study by Bjordal had already shown that the evidence for reducing pain with established pain killers is similar to that for acupuncture (2). The study for the BBC was a scaled-down version of an earlier 17-patient neuroimaging trial with which Hugh had been involved (3). For the BBC only one person’s brain was scanned, that of the programme’s presenter, Dr Salehya Ahsan.
Filming took place in May at the York Neuroimaging Centre at the University of York, where Hugh’s previous acupuncture-related brain research had been conducted. While Hugh performed the acupuncture, Dr Aziz Asghar analyzed the data. York Clinic’s Ben Elliot had already done a dry run in the scanner and the images looked promising. For Salehya’s scan, the BBC filmed looking into the scanner room while Hugh worked. No cameras were allowed into the room because of the strong and potentially dangerous magnetic field. Acupuncture needles are normally made from stainless steel, sometimes coated with silicon, with copper handles. For this study, Hugh had to use titanium needles that would not react to the magnetic field of the scanner.
The results of Salehya’s scans showed that acupuncture can impact on the brain’s pain-matrix in a counter-intuitive way. The images above are of Salehya’s brain. The red areas indicate parts of the brain which were activated by acupuncture. These are in the ‘somatosensory cortex’ of the brain, where touch and sensation are registered. These red activations show, as would be expected, that the brain is registering the touch of the acupuncture needles (sensing the presence of the needles). The blue areas show parts of the brain which were deactivated during acupuncture. These are in a deeper zone of the brain known as the ‘pain matrix’. If acupuncture caused pain, these parts of the brain would be activated. However, the opposite happened, suggesting that acupuncture could have a pain relieving effect.
The Trust Me, I’m a Doctor clip about Hugh’s Acupuncture research is available on YouTube.
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1. Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, Lewith G, MacPherson H, Foster NE, et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis. Arch.Intern.Med. 2012 Sep 10; 172 (19): 1444–53.
2. Bjordal JM, Ljunggren AE, Klovning A, Slordal L. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including cyclo-oxygenase-2 inhibitors, in osteoarthritic knee pain: meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials. BMJ. 2004; 329: 1317.
3. Asghar AU, Green G, Lythgoe MF, Lewith G, MacPherson H. Acupuncture needling sensation: the neural correlates of deqi using fMRI. Brain Res. 2010 Feb 22; 1315: 111–8.