Acupuncture may cure sepsis, saving lives
Acupuncture has been around for centuries, and even the federal government has given it its stamp of approval as a viable treatment for certain kinds of pain. The technique works by inserting fine needles into the skin that stimulate specific nerves on the body known as meridian points.
Now there’s a new study, published recently in the journal Nature Medicine, which further supports the effectiveness of acupuncture as a possible treatment for healing sepsis – an infection often found in seriously ill patients at hospitals, which causes inflammation.
Researchers from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School conducted the study, noting that sepsis is a major cause of death that kills approximately 250,000 people in America each year.
However, lead author and Rutgers immunologist Luis Ulloa says that it’s not the infection from sepsis that kills so many patients, but the inflammatory disorder that develops after the infection.
Accordingly, Ulloa and colleagues launched their study to find out if there was a way to control the inflammatory disorder that stems from the sepsis infection.
The research team was already aware that stimulating a major nerve in the body, called the vagus nerve, triggers certain actions in the body that cause a reduction in inflammation.
They therefore conducted an experiment using electroacupuncture – a type of acupuncture approved by the FDA for humans that delivers a brief electrical current into the nerves. However, the researchers used septic mice for the experiment to see if the electric current reduced inflammation and organ damage in the mice.
As a result, the researchers found that by increasing the amount of electricity during electroacupuncture on the mice, it stimulated molecules in the mice called cytokines, which helped reduce inflammation and reduce the number of mice deaths from sepsis.
Indeed, among the septic mice that were not given electroacupuncture, all of them died – but half of the mice receiving the treatment survived for at least one week.
The researchers were impressed with the results of acupuncture on the septic mice, but they wanted to find out why it worked as well as it did, so they removed the adrenal glands from mice. As a result, they discovered that removing these hormone-producing glands caused the electroacupuncture to cease being effective at reducing inflammation.
Such discovery initially thwarted their encouragement that electroacupuncture could work in humans to reduce inflammation from sepsis because it often causes reduced adrenal function.
But the team did not give up. Instead, they searched for anatomical changes that took place when the technique was carried out on the mice before their adrenal glands were removed.
Among the anatomical changes they found were increased levels of dopamine – a neurotransmitter that controls the immune system. However, when they tried adding dopamine by itself, it did not work to decrease inflammation.
Again, they did not give up, and their efforts paid off when they tried using a drug called fenoldopam that imitates the effects of dopamine. As a result, the drug worked to reduce the total number of deaths from sepsis by 40 percent – and it worked even without acupuncture.
According to the researchers, the results of the study have important and significant implications, as they not only provide additional evidence that supports the effectiveness and benefits of acupuncture – unlike what has previously been demonstrated before – but in addition to sepsis, their findings also show how acupuncture can be used to successfully treat other inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Chrohn’s disease and osteoarthritis.
Moreover, the team said their findings also open the door to developing drugs that could reduce sepsis deaths in humans, as there is not yet any such FDA-approved drug available on the market today.
1. Nature Medicine, Dopamine mediates vagal modulation of the immune system by electroacupuncture, Luis Ulloa, et al., published February 23, 2014 (doi:10.1038/nm.3479).
2. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Accupuncture: An Introduction, accessed February 24, 2014.