The Neural Basis of Acupuncture

Practiced in China and other Asian countries for several thousand years, acupuncture is among the few ancient medical techniques to have survived the process of selection and elimination. It was first introduced to the West in the sixteenth Century by the Portuguese. Acupuncture had significant exposure in the US in the early 1970s, when the New York Times published a report on the personal experience with acupuncture from one of its own reporters. The ancient therapeutic modality has been gaining popularity in the country since then. Today millions of Americans seek acupuncture treatment each year and it has been embraced by well-established institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.

There has been a strong interest to incorporate acupuncture into the framework of modern medicine. Some significant progress has been made since the latter part of the last century. Dr. Peter T Dorsher and his coauthors reviewed a large collection of relevant publications and released a comprehensive and interesting review in 2022 on the neuroanatomic and neurophysiologic basis of acupuncture. Dr. Dorsher is a physiatrist affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. Their full review article can be found at

Here is just a brief summary. Acupuncture points and the meridians are closely associated with the nervous system. Acupuncture works by stimulating peripheral nerves though needling. This then triggered further modulatory effects on the peripheral nervous system, the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, the immunologic and endocrinologic systems, etc. There are compelling neuroanatomic and neurophysiologic evidence supporting these conclusions, which include mapped 2D or 3D anatomic images as well as histologic, neurophysiologic, and fMRI studies. 

Authors of the review paper expressed admiration for the clinical brilliance of people who invented acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. They did these remarkable things more than 2200 years ago, without the systematic knowledge of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology and without help from any of the 20th century testing and visualization tools.

With all the research done so far, we should be closer to the goal of building a more solid foundation for acupuncture that is based on contemporary medical science. This should enable further development of acupuncture, address some people’s concerns about the practice, and encourage more patients to take advantage of this powerful modality. As a neurology clinic, our focus has always been the nervous system. Our extensive experience in this area will definitely help us provide better acupuncture service.