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The effect of acupuncture needle combination on central pain processing-an fMRI study

Albert Leung12*, Yi Zhao3 and Shivshil Shukla12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Anesthesiology, The University of California, School of Medicine, 9300 Campus Point Drive, MC 7651, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA

2 Department of Anesthesiology, Veterans Administration San Diego Healthcare System, 3350 La Jolla Village Drive, San Diego, CA 92161, USA

3 The University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA

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Molecular Pain 2014, 10:23  doi:10.1186/1744-8069-10-23

Published: 25 March 2014



Empirical acupuncture treatment paradigm for acute pain utilizing Tendinomuscular Meridians (TMM) calls for the stimulation of Ting Points (TPs) and Gathering point(GP). This study aims to compare the supraspinal neuronal mechanisms associated with both TPs and GP needling (EA3), and TPs needling alone (EA2) with fMRI.


A significant (P < 0.01) difference between pre-scan (heat Pain) HP, and post-EA HP VAS scores in both paradigms was noted (n = 11). The post-EA HP VAS score was significantly (P < 0.05) lower with EA3 comparing to EA2 Within-group random effect analysis indicated that EA3+HP>EA3 (condition EA3+HP subtracted by condition EA3) appeared to exert a significant degree of activity suppression in the affective supraspinal regions including the IPL, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insular cortex (IN). This level of suppression was not observed in the EA2+HP>EA2 (condition EA2+HP subtracted by condition EA2) within-group random effect analysis Between-group random effect analysis indicated that EA3 induced a significantly (P < 0.01, cluster size threshold 150) higher degree of deactivation than EA2 in several pain related supraspinal regions including the right prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate (rACC), medial cingulate cortex, left inferior frontal lobe and posterior cerebellum. The 2-factor ANOVA in those regions indicated both rACC and posterior cerebellum had a significant (P < 0.01) needle effect, and the right prefrontal area showed a significant (P < 0.01) HP effect. However, a significant interaction between the two factors was only found in the right prefrontal lobe. Granger causality analysis showed EA3 induced a much higher degree of inference among HP related supraspinal somatosensory, affective and modulatory components than EA2. Deactivation pattern at the medullary-pontine area casted a direct inference on the deactivation pattern of secondary somatosensory cortices which also affected the deactivation of the IN.


While both EA2 and EA3 induced a significant degree of deactivation in the human brain regions related to pain processing, the addition of GP stimulation further exerts an inhibitory effect on the ascending spinoreticular pain pathway. Therefore, different needling position as mandated in different empirical acupuncture treatment paradigms may play a different role in modulating pain related neuronal functions.

TMM; Tendinomuscular meridian; Acupuncture; Analgesia; Analgesic mechanisms; fMRI; Electroacupuncture