Brain Changes Involved In Alzheimer's Improve With Acupuncture (Study)

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Brain Changes Involved In Alzheimer's Improve With Acupuncture (Study)

Published on 08-20-2018

"ChadD" is an acupuncturist and lives in Minneapolis and has authored 367 other posts.

Statistically there is one person every 3 seconds, somewhere in the world, that develops dementia. There are currently around 50 million people world-wide which are in various stages of memory impairment and this number is currently expected to double every 20 years. There are, of course, a host of things that can be done to help slow and even stop the progression, much of these, such as dietary change, are ideally done before there is significant deterioration. While this article will cover a technical exploration of acupuncture and positive changes it fosters in the brain, it would be remiss of me to not do a brief aside about diet...

q?_encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=0062666479&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format=_SL250_&tag=yinyanghouse-20While this article is not going to discuss technical details of the role of diet in Alzheimer's, considering the rate of development, I feel I should at least provide some direction. The most comprensive text that I have seen at the time of this writing is "The Alzheimer's Solution: A Breakthrough Program to Prevent and Reverse the Symptoms of Cognitive Decline at Every Age", it is a worthwhile read and highly recommended.

I have written previously about the Chinese Medicine treatment of alzheimer's and our alzheimer's treatment section has some technical pointers and approaches. It is generally fairly well understood that acupuncture has positive affects on those living with dementia. It is most likely a combination of how acupuncture seems to be able to cut systemic inflammatory markers, improve digestive health, improve cardiovascular circulation and other factors. The actual treatment would be tailored to each individual and take into account other health issues they have had or currently have and guided with the diagnostic tools of Chinese Medicine. So what acupuncture "does" for alzheimer's is somewhat dependent on the issues and history of the individual (see "treating the cause vs. the symptoms" for more on that).

So while we can observe positive responses in our patients with dementia, we do not necessarily understand what is happening in western scientific terms. The study I am going to discuss today is exploring those details. The researchers were from various departments within the First Hospital of Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

To start this discussion we should start with what we think of as the process of alzheimer's. There are many changes in the cells of the brain thought to be involved in the development of alzheimer's, they are inter-related and generally include the following functions:

  • Amyloid Plaques - caused by beta-amyloid proteins, a foot soldier of the immune system which has many defense functions primarily against microbial infections. This is important but when there are too many attacks and/or these do not clear away quickly the plaques contribute to inflammation and the creation of another destructive protein, tau.
  • Neurofibrillary Tangles - this is where tau accumulates excessively and instead of providing the original role of helping to provide nourishment of the neurons, it bundles together blocking the communication/synapses.
  • Chronic inflammation - appears to be caused by or at least contributed to by a buildup of glial cells - the glial cells are generally used to clear waste and protein collections from the brain, but in alzheimer's these appear to not perform their duties.

At the end of all of this range of processes you have loss of neurons, functionally brain atrophy, and the condition deteriorates from losses in memory, to losses in function, then possibly to death. In this study, using a alzheimer's mouse model, researchers looked at the effect of certain acupuncture points to influence the development of new neurons in the brain. They provided treatment daily for 6 days, a rest day, then 6 more days before using a range of biochemical and physical tests to observe changes in the brain. The points they utilized were as follows:

  • CV 6 - very useful point for overall strengthening of the body, functionally through enhancing metabolic functions, also has uses in stroke and muscle atrophy.
  • CV 12 - used for a rnage of digestive issues as well as psychological issues such as anxiety and insomnia, likely due through the gut/brain axis.
  • CV 17 - the "hui meeting point of the qi" - similar to those above but strengthens more of the upper body functions.
  • ST 36 - arguably one of the most tonifying points of the body - again particularly for digestive/metabolic issues, along with psychological issues and for the overall strength and coordination of the body.
  • SP 10 - important point for what we would call heat in the blood, among other "blood" issues from a Chinese Medicine perspective. The "blood" being a much broader concept than what the term means in western medicine. "Translated" this concept is related to systemic inflammation as well as infections traveling in the blood.

After the treatment, the memory and spatial abilities of the alzheimer's model mice was tested using the Morris water maze. These results were much improved in the mice post treatment. To aid in the "why" - the researchers then utilized brain tissue sampling via golgi straining, to see if they could observe cellular improvements that appear to have led to the memory and spatial functioning improvements experienced by the mice.

Cellularly, the researchers noted a "significant increase in the number of apical and basal dendritic branches and total length of apical and basal dendrites after acupuncture". The researchers concluded that "acupuncture improves spatial learning and memory ability of middle-aged SAMP8 mice by ameliorating dendritic structure".

In a related study, researchers from the Capital Medical University, among other institutions, conducted a study looking at the neuronal specificity of acupuncture with regards to alzheimer's patients. Here researchers noted that many of the studies looking at how acupuncture appears to benefit alzheimer's patients are performed on only healthy individuals without the disease which may skew the results. In their study, the recruited 21 patients with alzheimer's (AD), 14 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and 14 healthy controls. In their study, acupuncture treatment utilized a fairly common point combination call the "siguan" or the "four gates" - this involves the following 2 points needled bilaterally:

  • LI 4 - has benefits in immunity, removes inflammation particularly from the head/face, and moves stagnation of qi and blood which is a somewhat complicated concept in Chinese Medicine involved with, but not limited to, cardiovascular issues.
  • LV 3 - important acupuncture point which broad utilizations involving qi and blood stagnation, excess "energy" in the head (headaches and other inflammatory processes), digestive issues and psychological issues involving the gut-brain axis.

They found that needling these points created changes in all groups involving "activations and deactivations in cognitive-related areas, visual-related areas, the sensorimotor-related area, basal ganglia, and cerebellum". When compared with the healthy participants, those with impairment showed "similar activations in cognitive-related brain areas (inferior frontal gyrus, supramarginal gyrus, and rolandic operculum) as well as deactivations in cognitive-related areas, visual-related areas, basal ganglia, and cerebellum" that were not found in the healthy participants. This study also used "sham needling" to further confirm that proper point utilization on patients who diagnostically will benefit from these points had stronger, identifiable responses internally than their healthy or sham needled counterparts.

For the average layperson this is admittedly somewhat technical, at the end of the day acupuncture appears to be a clinically and scientifically valid approach, ideally along with diet and lifestyle change, to help the body not be damaged from out of control immune/inflammatory responses.

This post has the following associations:

Issues/Symptoms: alzheimer's disease, anxiety, cardiovascular issues, dementia, digestive issues, immunity, insomnia

Patterns: blood stagnation, heat in the blood

Acupoints: cv 6, cv 12, cv 17, li 4, lv 3, sp 10, st 36

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