China science

Float like a butterfly, sting like a needle: acupuncture can treat Parkinson’s, Shanghai team claim

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 1:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

Former world heavyweight boxing champion of the world Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 at the age of 42, and the world watched in the following years as he slowly withdrew from public view while his motor skills degraded.

But did he ever try acupuncture?

For thousands of years, Chinese medical practitioners have used acupuncture to treat various illness and as a remedy for pain relief. It has been used to tackle brain-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and stroke recovery, but remains a controversial and somewhat disputed practice.

Researchers from Shanghai have now confirmed for the first time that acupuncture, which involves inserting thin needles into certain points of the body, could be used to cure Parkinson’s, according to a paper in the journal Scientific Reports.

The treatment works by stimulating the neurons in charge of dopamine production, and is based on experiments with mice. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with a number of functions related to reward-motivated behaviour, motor control, and the release of hormones.

Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease associated with body tremors and impaired motor skills, stems from a paucity of dopamine-secreting neurons in the substantia nigra, located in the middle of the cerebellum. But in most cases, doctors don’t know why this afflicts people.

READ MORE: Addicts ‘helped’ by Chinese medicine and acupuncture

The research team, which was led by Professor Fan Chunhai at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, used mice that had been genetically engineered to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s for the experiment.

Needles were inserted just above the right hind legs of the mice, in an acupuncture point known in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as the yanglingquan (“yang mound spring”). It has been widely used by TCM doctors to cure motion dysfunctions.

The treatment was performed once daily for 12 consecutive days. The researchers studied the brain structure of the mice using an electron microscope, which uses an electron beam to examine objects in much greater detail.

The mice that received the treatment showed a more than 80 per cent improvement rate compared to a control group that did not, according to the paper.

The neurons that produce dopamine were found to have been stimulated by the needling, which caused them to release various chemicals to clean up the “debris” in those neural circuits damaged by the disease. This created room for healthy cells to regrow.

To test how well the mice recovered, the researchers put them on a spinning rod, or cylinder, to see how long they could stay on it before falling off. Longer durations presupposed better motor control skills such as grip and balance.

“Remarkably, the AG [acupuncture group] mice exhibited about an 80 per cent increase in overall rod performance scores, whereas the SG [standard group] ones did not show any significant change,” the authors wrote in the paper.

The researchers compared the AG mice with others that had been orally administered rapamycin, a drug that can stop the body from rejecting transplants by suppressing the immune system. It can also repair damaged neurons, recent studies show.

The team found that the Parkinson’s symptoms had receded in both groups, but that the ones that received acupuncture treatment were overall in better healthy, with thicker and shinier fur, while the others manifested a “sparse and dull coat of hair”.

This is because acupuncture may produce fewer side effects than the other medicine, which was found to negatively affect the metabolic systems of the mice.

But Fan and his colleagues said the acupuncture treatment still has a few riddles waiting to be solved. For example, they were not clear how the stimulated hind leg could work its magic on the brain given the long distance of the connecting neural pathways.

Mao Rongrong, a neural scientist with the Kunming Institute of Zoology in southwestern Yunnan province, said the findings by Fan’s team were “encouraging”.

“But the results are based on animals, and it remains to be seen whether the effectiveness and mechanism will be the same on humans,” she said.

The rapid development of neural science in recent years has provided researchers with many new tools to study phenomena that was previously considered unfathomable, Mao said.

“Ancient wisdom may hold a key to the future,” she added.