That’s the headline from this BBC report. Unfortunately the brains being deactivated are clearly those of BBC reporters writing about acupuncture. To see what I mean, read this (all bold is mine):
Acupuncture works by deactivating the area of the brain governing pain, a TV show will claim.
Tuesday's programme - the first of three on complementary medicine - will show researchers carrying out brain scans on people having acupuncture.
The BBC Two show will also feature heart surgery done using acupuncture instead of a general anaesthetic.
Wow, really? Acupuncture instead of a general anesthetic. I thought all these surgeries in China supposedly done using acupuncture and not general anesthetics were actually shown to have been performed using anesthetics (ie there was more involved than acupuncture). Could the BBC have found some surgery that really was performed using acupuncture only? Er, actually no, because the very next sentence reads:
The patient is conscious during the operation in China, but she was given sedatives and a local anaesthetic.
Well if the patient was given sedatives and a local anesthetic, the surgery was not done using acupuncture was it? Sheesh.
Still, the research seems to have come up with some interesting data. Volunteers had “deep needling”: needles inserted 1cm into the back of the hand. A control group had needles placed only 1mm deep. During these two procedures, the volunteers underwent brain scans to see what effect there was in the brain. They found that the superficial needling resulted in activation of the motor areas of the cortex, a normal reaction to pain. However, the deep needling deactivated a part of the brain, specifically the limbic system. This was surprising because it is usually suggested that acupuncture activates the brain – usually the part that produces endorphins.
Of course, there is no suggestion that this result is due to the balancing of yin and yang by releasing blocked qi in one of the specific 2,000 acupuncture points of the body. In fact, there is no evidence from this study that it matters where the needles are placed, and other studies have shown it makes no difference where they are placed as long as the person receiving the acupuncture believes the needles are being placed in the special magic positions. There is still no reason to suppose that there is any value in the detailed training acupuncturists have to complete to learn where to stick the needles, or that there is any value in most acupuncture treatments at all.
Or to quote Professor Tony Wildsmith, a pain relief expert at the University of Dundee:
The thing about acupuncture is that it does not work on everyone. It is more likely to be effective if you believe it.
I think it is a psychological manipulation technique, a distraction. We are not going to get to the stage where this could be used instead of a general anaesthetic.
Still, if independently confirmed, this is useful data. One day, when we understand what if anything acupuncture really does, we might be able to obtain some of its benefits without all the mystical nonsense about qi. Maybe.