Bloodletting. Snake oil. Ointments made from mercury. Many dangerous medical treatments from the ancient world seem so strange to our modern culture. At a glance, acupuncture seems just as bizarre – after all, how could poking someone with a bunch of needles cure anything?
A study recently published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests that acupuncture has the ability to increase the number of neurons in the hippocampus, an important brain region that engages in both learning and memory. The authors also found that acupuncture can reduce the cognitive deficits inherent in dementia.
Researchers divided rats into three groups: acupuncture, placebo-acupuncture and impaired. Each rat was given an injection to stimulate dementia symptoms. In the acupuncture group, rats received twelve treatments of acupuncture over a period of 14 days. In the placebo-acupuncture group, rats were poked with needles that were not placed in the proper location for acupuncture. In the impaired group, the rats were simply restrained as though they were about to receive acupuncture, but did not.
After the real and fake acupuncture treatments were completed, the rats were placed in something known as the Morris water maze. The Morris water maze is a container filled with opaque water with a single platform hidden just underneath the surface. Rats learn where the platform is, then navigate back to it based only on memory. The Morris water maze is an excellent way to measure learning and memory.
Compared to the rats who did not receive acupuncture treatment, rats in the acupuncture group navigated more swiftly to the platform, suggesting that they remembered its location better than their peers.
Effect of acupuncture on the rat brain
Once the behavioral components of the study were complete, the researchers examined how acupuncture influenced each rat’s brain, specifically the hippocampus. As mentioned previously, the hippocampus is a brain region that plays a vital role in both learning and memory. In the past, neuronal loss within the hippocampus has been associated with cognitive decline.
Rats who had received acupuncture had a greater number of neurons in the CA1 region of the hippocampus. This is likely why they retained more information than the rats in the other groups.
What does this mean for humans?
This study suggests that acupuncture can reduce cognitive decline as well as increase the number of neurons in a vital region of the brain. Of course, it is important to remember that this study was conducted in rats – not humans. Nonetheless, the results are promising for acupuncture’s future (and present) as a treatment for cognitive decline.
Acupuncture’s impact on cognitive decline
Dementia is not the only condition that interrupts the brain’s natural cognitive functions. Cognitive decline has been observed in numerous mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and substance addiction. It is also common in physical illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. Cognitive decline also naturally occurs with aging.
Symptoms of cognitive decline include misplacing objects, difficulty following a conversation and frequently forgetting about conversations or appointments. Cognitive decline can profoundly influence quality of life, make it difficult to hold down a job or maintain a social life.
If acupuncture can truly treat cognitive decline in humans, it could transform the entire medical field. Research about acupuncture preventing cognitive decline has largely been positive in animal studies, but considerably more mixed when it comes to humans. More research will be necessary before acupuncture can become truly widespread.
How can I receive acupuncture?
Risks associated with acupuncture are low and side effects are minimal. Neither a referral nor doctor’s recommendation is necessary.
Before committing to a practitioner, first make sure that he or she is licensed by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Also determine whether or not the procedure is covered by your insurance. Although more research is necessary before acupuncture can be conclusively linked to improving cognitive ability, it might still be worth pursuing.
Sovereign Health Group follows the latest research on substance abuse and mental illness as well as ways to reduce the effects associated with diseases such as cognitive decline. Our unique brain wellness program provides patients with an opportunity to retrain their brain and improve cognitive health. For further questions, please call 866-524-5504.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, Sovereign Health Group writer