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Acupuncture may show effect in treating Parkinson's

January 22, 2007 By Kerri Smith This article courtesy of Nature News.

Mice, at least, could benefit from therapeutic use of needles.

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Acupuncture, used for thousands of years in the Far East to treat pain and illness, has many followers but little scientific rigor to explain whether it works or not. Now, an unusual study suggests that acupuncture has a marked effect on the type of brain inflammation seen in Parkinson's disease in mice, that is.

Studies of the effects of acupuncture in animals are few and far between. But mice can't tell whether they are being treated or not potentially yielding a much better idea of whether the treatment might actually be working or whether any improvement is just a placebo effect.

Parkinson's is a movement disorder that affects more than 6 million people worldwide. It is associated with low levels of the chemical dopamine in the brain. To investigate the protective effects of acupuncture in the brain, a team led by Sabina Lim at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, used a standard mouse model of Parkinson's disease, in which injections of a chemical known as MPTP kill off brain cells that manufacture dopamine.

Balanced out

It is difficult to say that it can 'cure' the disease.
Sabina Lim
Kyung Hee University
Some of the injected mice then received acupuncture every two days in two spots, one behind the knee and one on top of the foot. In humans, says Lim, these points are traditionally considered to be involved in muscle movement, and thus could potentially be seen as targets for treatment of Parkinson's. Another group of mice received acupuncture in two spots on the hips, not believed to be effective for acupuncture. A third group had no acupuncture at all.

By the end of seven days, the MPTP injections had decreased dopamine levels both in the mice that had not had acupuncture, and in the mice that received 'pretend' acupuncture, to about half the normal amount. But in the acupuncture-treated group, dopamine levels declined much less steeply, and nearly 80% of the dopamine remained.

The mechanism for such an effect is still unknown, Lim says. But she and her team suspect that because inflammation in the brain often accompanies and worsens other symptoms of Parkinson's disease, acupuncture might maintain dopamine levels by preventing inflammation. Their results are published in Brain Research1.

Iris Chen, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who researches the effects of acupuncture on the dopamine system, agrees that acupuncture might even out a skewed balance of chemicals in the brain. The treatment can increase or decrease the levels of brain chemicals, she says, and seems to be able to restore the correct balance if things go awry. "That's probably why acupuncture doesn't have much effect if you're healthy," says her colleague Kenneth Kwong.

East meets West

Lim's team has already performed a clinical trial of acupuncture in humans with Parkinson's disease, but the sample size was not large enough to verify that there was a definite effect. They did conclude, though, that a combination of Western medication and acupuncture could extend the length of time the drugs work for (with time, they become less effective) and increase the survival rate of Parkinson's patients. "The bottom line," Lim says, "is that, even though Parkinson's patients are treated with acupuncture therapies in Korea, it is difficult to say that it can 'cure' the disease."

Using acupuncture to treat Parkinson's would also mean diagnosing the disease early enough, says Ruth Walker, a movement disorders researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Parkinson's doesn't even manifest until you have lost a large proportion of dopamine cells," she says. By that point, people need a replacement of the dopamine they have lost; maintenance of the existing levels is often not enough.

On the whole, though, Walker is positive about the study. It's important that work such as Lim's make it into Western literature, she says, in order to encourage scientifically rigorous work into acupuncture and other alternative therapies.

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  1. Kang J.M., et al. Brain Res., 1131. 211 - 219 (2007).


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