A recent study from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience looked at the effect of acupuncture and the functional connectivity of the bilateral primary motor cortices in individuals that had ischemic stroke. A group of normal (i.e. no stroke) subjects was used as a control. Both groups had brain scans done before and after acupuncture stimulation. Not surprisingly the stroke group showed a decreased value of functional connectivity between the motor cortices compared to the control group in the baseline scans. Acupuncture stimulation increased the functional connectivity in the stroke group, but had no effect in the control group.
This is another study that provides evidence that acupuncture achieves clinical results by increasing what is known as neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to establish new physical and/or functional connections. The way different brain areas communicate with each other is critically important to our ability to function normally and maintain optimal health. Therefore treatment methods which can stimulate the communication between brain areas are very important. For stroke patients in particular it is vital for recovery to restore the communication between brain areas and this study is evidence acupuncture can do exactly that.
The study used only a single acupuncture point, GB 34. This point is very commonly used clinically to treat tendon, connective tissue, and skeletal-muscle related disorders. Earlier studies have shown GB 34 to have a modulatory effect on the motor cortex, which in combination with its clinical usage was the reason this point was selected.
This study also provides evidence for one of the fundamental components of TCM theory – that acupuncture treatment is auto-regulatory. As would be expected, the control group showed no changes in the functional connectivity as there was nothing wrong with that communication in the first place. The stroke group, whose connectivity was impaired, did show improvement as expected. In other words this study have provided evidence that acupuncture does not create changes in neural plasticity if there is nothing wrong with the communication between brain areas in the first place. These results are exactly what is expected from an auto-regulatory mechanism.