By Benjamin Dierauf, LAc
While its fairly common knowledge that acupuncture works great for a wide variety of conditions – pain, numbness, stress, and gynecological, immunological, respiratory, and digestive issues, much of the basic science on how it actually works has yet to be discovered. For example, it’s been difficult to identify physiological structures that make an acupuncture point different from other parts of the body. But thanks to the creative use of new technologies, acupuncture points research may be starting to change.
I had just gotten my acupuncture license in the early 1990’s when I shared a house with my buddy Tom, an engineer working on the construction of the Advanced Light Source (ALS) housed in the large domed building near the top of the Berkeley hills at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. While my life was focused on learning and practicing a relatively esoteric medicine thousands of years old, his was focused on the cutting edge of technology. We often tried to merge paradigms and discuss questions like “Hey Ben, when I put my head between the poles of these super powerful magnets I feel kind of dizzy – what’s happening to my qi?
The years passed by and the Advanced Light Source (ALS), one of the few large scale pure science projects funded during the Reagan years at a cost of $300 million, went on from being what Tom once described as a “high-tech flashlight”, to become one of the most prodigious producers of scientific papers in the world, and probably produces more PhD’s/square foot than any other building in the world!
What the ALS does is accelerate electrons around a circle by powerful magnets to almost the speed of light. One section of the ring forces the electrons through an undulating series of magnets that make the electrons emit bundles of light and x-rays – but a thousand times more powerful. This is called synchrotron radiation.
Speed forward 20 years, and researchers in China are now using synchrotron radiation in conjunction with CT scans (computerized tomography) to study the anatomy of acupuncture points. CT scans use a series of x-rays to create cross-sectional images of biological tissue. The addition of synchotron radiation creates x-rays with such a high level of brightness, collimation (level of parallel light waves), and polarity, that the resulting 3-dimensional images of biological structures have a level of detail that goes down to the molecular level.
Chinese researchers focused their CT scans on the acupuncture points Stomach 36 and Stomach 37 – found on humans approximately 3 and 6 inches below the patellae and half an inch lateral to the lateral border of the tibia, and found significant differences in tissue from non-acupuncture point regions
At these acupuncture points the CT scans revealed fine, high-density microvascular structures 15-50 micrometers in size with bifurcations that can clearly be seen around thicker blood vessels that were several dozen micrometers in size. Non-acupuncture point regions displayed a few thick blood vessels but none of the fine, high-density vascular structures. Researchers also noted that the size of an acupuncture point could be determined by the diameter of these micro-vascular structures.
While other research has determined that there are higher densities of nerves and blood vessels in the regions where acupuncture points are present, it had not been scientifically determined if there are unique features specific to acupuncture points. This research, published in the Journal of Electron Spectroscopy and Related Phenomena, challenges that determination.
Science creates many more questions than it answers, and questions about the physiological purposes of these highly vascular structures and how they might this relate to the practice of acupuncture abound and are yet to be answered. And eventually it may even help answer Tom’s question about what happens when he sticks his head between those high powered magnets.
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