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Possible vindication for some in the alternative medicine industry with a new scientific study on acupuncture getting positive results, and which also might have finally found the mechanism through which the ancient Chinese treatment works – at least in terms of its analgesic effects (if indeed it does actually work). Though alt-med folk may not be as impressed to learn that rather than ‘Qi’, vital forces or similar, the mechanism is more the prosaic bodily chemical adenosine, which surges in concentration after physical trauma and is linked to pain suppression.

There’s been plenty of mainstream attention for the news – here’s some quotes from The Telegraph:

Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, New York, said: "Acupuncture has been a mainstay of medical treatment in certain parts of the world for 4,000 years, but because it has not been understood completely, many people have remained sceptical. In this work, we provide information about one physical mechanism through which acupuncture reduces pain in the body."

"What we found is that adenosine, a natural pain killer, is released during acupuncture and that adenosine may be the primary way acupuncture reduces pain. The most important observation is that acupuncture worked almost three times as long if we gave a drug that slow down the removal of adenosine."

Adenosine, which also helps to regulate sleep and keep the heart healthy, becomes active in the skin after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and ease pain.

However, to temper any (tabloid news induced) suggestion that acupuncture is now ‘proven’ beyond doubt, head over to Not Exactly Rocket Science or Stuff and Nonsense. Although when reading those accounts I had the distinct feeling there was as much bias in the opposite direction as they claim there is in the newspaper stories and research paper.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out with skeptics in general – on the one hand, the research offers support for a long-time ‘nemesis’ in alt-med; on the other, it offers support for a physiological (materialist) explanation for a ‘mystical’ medicine (and yes, I *am* suggesting that ‘skeptics’ in general will use results to support their own viewpoint, rather than be scientifically objective…you should know that by now).

One thing in the criticisms of the paper that I don’t particularly get. Is it really necessary to control for placebo in mice? Do they believe when scientists stick needles in their legs that it’s likely it will get rid of their pain? Anybody able to enlighten me?

Full text: “Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture