The evidence is mounting that I am in fact, a Neuron Whisperer. I am prepared to back this up with a couple of solid peer-reviewed papers, as well as an anecdote, but I think that this clip from the Mighty Boosh sums up the idea the most effectively:
In this clip, tiny Howard and Vince’s white blood cells “crimp,” (parody of rap?) a synchronized rhyme which accesses memory and reflex simultaneously. They begin to re-enact the crimp, which helps them to recognize Howard as a friendly agent and to create further communication which can be propagated into the neural network. To the Brain!
You may remember a similar post using the Mighty Boosh’s “crimping” practice, when speaking about neural mirroring and group exercise, HERE.
Neural mirroring has been postulated as an evolutionary trait that allows us to learn extremely quickly via mimicry. It also allows us to function optimally in social settings by actually experiencing in our own minds the mental state of someone else by observing the physical manifestation of that mental state in another person. This is one definition of empathy. Here is a fantastic video by NOVA that explains neural mirroring (the transcript is a nice summary as well).
The concept of neural mirroring emphasizes the importance of having a medical provider who is in a good state of health and excellent state of mind and spirit. But acupuncture takes this a step further and directly impacts the function of the nervous system. In the video clip above, Howard is using a technique that resonates with how acupuncture communicates with the nervous system- by stimulating a previously used pathway (neurotransmitter release) in order to gain access to the deeper pathways of neural network function (neural repair, hypothalamic-limbic system access).
Acupuncture has been shown to promote nerve repair, in response to both traumatic injury (such as spinal cord damage or stroke) and neurodegenerative disease (such as Parkinson’s). One proposed mechanism of acupuncture’s action is the stimulation of the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins and adenosine. The Mighty Boosh video should feature this adenosine molecule rather than white cells:
Or this beta-endorphin molecule (in the form of a beautifully tooled choker):
Acupuncture’s adenosine-releasing effect can treat many things, from pure pain relief to repairing nerve damage, reducing the severity of autoimmune disease, post-stroke recovery, and wound healing. Quite a laundry list of actions, there. I take this to mean that performing acupuncture (to release neurotransmitters such as adenosine) is a form of Neuron Whispering!
Part 2 will outline the details of how specific acupuncture points have been proven to affect neural function, and we will discuss what the experience looks and feels like in a clinical setting. Until then, here are some academic papers to make all of you nerds happy.
Here is a note about acupuncture’s effect on neurotransmitters, addressed in a lecture given to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture in 1999: “Acupuncture can speed up the wound healing process92 and cause an exaggerated systemic wound healing and stress response.93,94 The response can include excessive release of endorphin, which stimulates epithelial cell growth,95 as well as analgesia. Other neurohumoral factors induced by acupuncture such as serotonin96 and adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) hormone97 also have growth-control effects.98 (1)”
A 2010 article in Science Daily News goes into some detail regarding the most current research on acupuncture’s mechanism of action:
The research focuses on adenosine, a natural compound known for its role in regulating sleep, for its effects on the heart, and for its anti-inflammatory properties. But adenosine also acts as a natural painkiller, becoming active in the skin after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and ease pain in a way similar to lidocaine.
In the current study, scientists found that the chemical is also very active in deeper tissues affected by acupuncture. The Rochester researchers looked at the effects of acupuncture on the peripheral nervous system — the nerves in our body that aren’t part of the brain and spinal cord. The research complements a rich, established body of work showing that in the central nervous system, acupuncture creates signals that cause the brain to churn out natural pain-killing endorphins. (2, emphasis added)
An August 2012 study of sciatic nerve damage in mice has come to the conclusion that acupuncture could be used as “a complementary approach to stimulate intrinsic motor fibres regrowth properties in patients…This study demonstrates that electro-acupuncture exerts a positive influence on motor recovery and is efficient in the treatment of pain symptoms that develop during target re-innervation.(3)” In attempting to understand the mechanism of this beneficial effect, the authors posit an association with the opioid-releasing effect of acupuncture as helping stimulate nerve repair, citing a 2007 study published in Brain Research that finds “that morphine may promote the regeneration and synaptic reconstruction of the terminals of injured primary unmyelinated afferent fibers in lamina II of spinal cord, by a process mediated by mu-opioid receptors.(4)”
A 2004 pilot study published in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair examined 36 cases of post-stroke motor recovery using acupuncture, and found that specific sensorimotor functions were significantly improved compared to the control group, based on a number of possibly combined mechanisms of action:
Acupuncture may provide a form of sensory stimulation that stimulates polymodaltype receptors providing a source of peripheral afferent stimulation via the spinal cord to central nervous system structures.11-13 After stroke, acupuncture has been found to induce changes in regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) that may increase flow to hypoperfused areas of the ischemic penumbra.14 Changes in rCBF have also been attributed to acupuncture in the hypothalamus- limbic systems in response to stimulation of analgesic points, providing further support for localized cortical effects attributable to acupuncture stimulation.15,16 Additionally, stroke recovery has also been associated with neurotrophic factors that are capable of supporting neuronal survival after stroke.17 Recent animal work is beginning to demonstrate that acupuncture can enhance neurotrophic factor expression that promotes cell survival and prevents apoptosis.18-20 If the mechanism of acupuncture effectiveness after stroke is related to factors that influence afferent inputs and intrinsic cortical circuits associated with sensorimotor function, then measures of acupuncture effectiveness should be used that are more closely related to neurorecovery.(5)
And finally, to glorify the adenosine molecule to greater heights, I include the following 2008 study which examines the possible use of adenosine in inflammatory and immune pathways.
The effect of adenosine on cytokine production by macrophages has attracted considerable attention, because macrophage-derived cytokines are crucial initiators and orchestrators of immune responses. As tumour necrosis factor-? (TNF-?) was one of the first cytokines to be discovered, a substantial body of information has accumulated regarding the ability of adenosine receptor activation to limit TNF-? production following macrophage activation.
…Although A2A receptors are present on immature dendritic cells, they are expressed at low levels and appear to be silent, as their activation is unable to elicit downstream signalling events such as accumulation of intracellular cAMP25. However, dendritic cell maturation is accompanied by the emergence of A2A-receptor-mediated signalling responses, owing to both increased expression and coupling of A2A receptors25,26. A2A receptor activation on mature dendritic cells shifts their cytokine profile from a pro-inflammatory to an anti-inflammatory one, with reduced IL12, IL6 and interferon-? (IFN-?) production and augmented IL10 production25–27. It is likely that dendritic cells in the presence of adenosine have a reduced capacity to induce T helper 1 (TH1) cell versus TH2 cell polarization of naive CD4+ cells27. This is due to the adenosine-induced switch in dendritic cell cytokine production away from the TH1-inducing IL12 towards the TH2-inducing IL10.
In summary, the available data support a dual role for adenosine in dictating dendritic cell function. Adenosine promotes the recruitment of immature dendritic cells to sites of inflammation and injury via A1 or A3 receptors. At these sites adenosine produces, via A2A receptors, an anti-inflammatory dendritic cell phenotype driving T-cell responses towards a TH2 profile.(6, emphasis added)
Acupuncture’s effect on the nervous system has been shown to elevate mood and relieve stress (an increasingly popular conception of acupuncture), but apparently this just scratches the surface. Acupuncture also helps regenerate nerve cells, helps perfuse injured brain tissue with beneficial blood for post-stroke recovery, initiates a strong anti-inflammatory effect and relieves symptoms of autoimmune diseases while strengthening the immune system against attack from outside forces.
Wait, wait… here is a picture of me, ACTUALLY NEURON-WHISPERING A HORSE!
And for your gratuitous viewing pleasure, a riveting TED talk about the process of having a stroke, as experienced and recounted by a brain researcher!
1. Shang, Charles MD. MECHANISM OF ACUPUNCTURE – BEYOND NEUROHUMORAL THEORY; Lecture at the 1999 Annual Symposium of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Medical Acupuncture: A Journal For Physicians By Physicians. “Aurum Nostrum Non Est Aurum Vulgi” Fall 1999 / Wiinter 2000 Volume 11 / Number 2. http://www.medicalacupuncture.com/aama_marf/journal/vol11_2/conduct.html
2. Acupuncture’s Molecular Effects Pinned Down: New Insights Spur Effort to Boost Treatment’s Impact Significantly. ScienceDaily. 2010 May 31. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100530144021.htm (original article: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v13/n7/full/nn.2562.html)
3. Ngoc S Hoang1,4, Chamroeun Sar1, Jean Valmier1,3, Victor Sieso1,2 and Frédérique Scamps1. Electro-acupuncture on functional peripheral nerve regeneration in mice: a behavioural study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012, 12:141 doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-141 Published: 31 August 2012
4. Zeng YS, Nie JH, Zhang W, Chen SJ, Wu W. Morphine acts via mu-opioid receptors to enhance spinal regeneration and synaptic reconstruction of primary afferent fibers injured by sciatic nerve crush. Brain Res. 2007 Jan 26;1130(1):108-13. Epub 2006 Dec 13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/portal/utils/pageresolver.fcgi?recordid=1354160406485082
5. David N. Alexander, Steven Cen, Katherine J. Sullivan, Gitu Bhavnani, Xiuling Ma, Stanley P. Azen and ASAP Study. Effects of Acupuncture Treatment on Poststroke Motor Recovery and Physical Function: A Pilot Study. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair. 2004; 18; 259. DOI: 10.1177/1545968304271568 http://nnr.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/18/4/259
6. György Haskó,* Joel Linden,‡ Bruce Cronstein,§ and Pál Pacher? Adenosine receptors: therapeutic aspects for inflammatory and immune diseases. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2008 September; 7(9): 759–770. doi: 10.1038/nrd2638 PMCID: PMC2568887 NIHMSID: NIHMS71616 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568887/