Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Basic Acupuncture Research

  • Florian Beissner


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to study the underlying mechanisms of acupuncture for more than a decade. Until the present day, over 80 studies and a dozen review articles have been published on this topic. Emphasizing the methodological and statistical quality of the studies, this critical review evaluates the results obtained so far. After dividing the studies by their analysis strategies into hypothesis-driven and data-driven approaches, inclusion criteria were defined for a meta-analysis on the cortical activations reported by the hypothesis-driven studies. Due to the inhomogeneity of the methods the results from the data-driven studies were only evaluated qualitatively. Seventy-one out of 82 studies applied hypothesis-driven methods. However, only 14 of them met the inclusion criteria. The majority of these studies reported activations in cortical areas relevant to the processing of somatosensory, motor or pain signals, as well as areas related to the special senses. In contrast, data-driven approaches identified some cortical networks that were influenced strongly by acupuncture sometimes leading to sustained changes in cortical connectivity. So far it is impossible to say if cortical activations under acupuncture are part of an underlying mechanism or if they simply reflect the brain’s processing of the acupuncture stimulus. Recent results from data-driven analyses, however, have started to shed light on the role that the brain may play in mediating acupuncture-related effects.


Acupuncture Meta-analysis Cerebral cortex Brainstem Functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI statistics 



This work was supported by the Horst Görtz Foundation.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Pain and Autonomics–Integrative Research (PAIR), Clinic of Psychiatry and PsychotherapyUniversity Clinic JenaJenaGermany

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