In a recent article published last month in the research journal Science, researchers proposed the creation and application of an “intelligent needle” or “i-needle” that would be able to assess the biological and chemical effects of acupuncture at a molecular level. The authors stated that the technology currently exists and has been successfully miniaturized that would allow researchers to create and acupuncture needle made of carbon nanotube technology that would contain a variety of sensors including a battery and wireless transmission system that would allow researchers to observe what happens at a molecular level during an acupuncture treatment, possibly giving insight into the biological and chemical mechanisms of acupuncture.
One of the biggest barriers to widespread acceptance of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine is the lack of hard scientific research on these forms of medicine. One of the main problems is the requirement of representative, double-blind, placebo controlled studies that are the gold standard of all western clinical research. The main issue being that this model, while certainly effective for testing the efficacy of a single substance or test, is not always representative of the way that traditional Chinese medicine is practiced. For example, acupuncturists and Chinese herbalists will often base their treatment on the individual patient’s situation, each person is different and will have a different set of pathological patterns. A group of people with back pain may have several different reasons for that pain and accordingly would receive individualized and different treatments. The same is true with herbal medicines, often standard herbal formulas are modified by adding or subtracting herbs or modifying dosages to fit the individual patient’s pattern. This can lead to problems in the research arena as if you have 30 people and they each received a different treatment, it is hard to say with certainty what was and was not effective. This is changing in recent years with acupuncture research studies using a standard set of points for all patients along with a few sub sets that can be added for different types of patterns so that essentially every patient in the experimental group would receive the same treatment. Additionally, some other studies have been studying groups of patients that all have the same pattern or cause for the problem being studied, this way they can all have the same treatment. As these methods are being integrated, better and higher quality research is coming out supporting acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicines efficacy and this is leading researchers to now look into the body to see how and why the medicine works.
One of the more recent proposals that would explain the action of acupuncture is the concept of purinergic signaling. Essentially this theory states that when acupuncture needles cause local tissue damage and inflammation at the site of the needle insertion, cells in these tissues release chemical messengers that then travel to the areas of the brain that control the targeted organs that the treatment is trying to affect, similarly these messengers can also travel to areas of the brain associated with pain and inhibit the bodies pain response.
The i-needle would be able to make measurements of not only purinergic signaling, but also effects of release of hormones and even changes to gene expression that can occur during an acupuncture treatment. Being able to see on a molecular level what is happening at an acupuncture point may lead to more in-depth and targeted research that can move acupuncture into the mainstream healthcare arena.
My background before becoming an acupuncturist and herbalist was in math and science, and having several members of my family in the western healthcare field, I have always been interested in math, science, and the human body. I am very excited when I can find this type of research that blends modern western science with traditional Chinese medicine. I will be waiting to hear more about the i-needle and its findings.
Source: Carrara et al, Science, 346 (6216 Suppl), S21-S22 (2014).
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