Medical Research

How Acupuncture Targets Inflammation. From Harvard Gazette

Kristen Sparrow • November 06, 2021

serene, misty park bench
North Lake, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

Harvard gazette does a great job explaining the importance of this  Nature article that I wrote about when it came out. It’s great to have professional science writers do the explaining!

A subset of neurons in the hindlimbs have been found to trigger an anti-inflammatory response when acupuncture is applied.

Andrey Popov


“This study touches on one of the most fundamental questions in the acupuncture field: What is the neuroanatomical basis for body region, or acupoint, selectivity?” said lead investigator Qiufu Ma, HMS professor of neurobiology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

One area of particular interest to the research team is the so-called cytokine storm  — the rapid release of large quantities of cytokines that frequently drives severe, systemic inflammation, and can be triggered by many things, including COVID-19, cancer treatment, or sepsis.

“This exuberant immune response is a major medical problem with a very high fatality rate of 15 percent to 30 percent,” Ma said. Even so, drugs to treat cytokine storm are lacking.

Adapting an ancient technique to treat aberrant inflammation

In recent decades, acupuncture has been increasingly embraced in Western medicine as a potential treatment for inflammation.

In this technique, acupoints on the body’s surface are mechanically stimulated, triggering nerve signaling that affects the function of other parts of the body, including organs.

In a 2014 study, researchers reported that electroacupuncture, a modern version of traditional acupuncture that uses electrical stimulation, could reduce cytokine storm in mice by activating the vagal-adrenal axis — a pathway wherein the vagus nerve signals the adrenal glands to release dopamine. [I discussed the article here]

“We have a lot of tough chronic diseases that still need better treatments,” he said, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and arthritis. Another area of need, he added, is excessive immune reactions that can be a side effect of cancer immunotherapy.

Ma hopes that his research will ultimately advance scientific understanding of acupuncture and provide practical information that can be used to improve and refine the technique…