IU researchers find electroacupuncture releases stem cells to relieve pain, promote tissue repair

  • March 16, 2017

A study led by Indiana University School of Medicine researchers demonstrates how electroacupuncture triggers a neurological mechanism that can help promote tissue repair and relieve injury-induced pain.

Their findings, published online March 16 in the journal Stem Cells, provide the most comprehensive picture yet of how electroacupuncture stimulates the brain to facilitate the release of stem cells and adds new insight relating to the cells’ healing properties.

Electroacupuncture is a form of acupuncture that uses a small electrical current to augment the ancient Chinese medical practice of inserting fine needles into the skin at pre-determined points throughout the body.

For the study, a team of more than 40 scientists at institutions in the United States and South Korea was led by four senior authors including IU School of Medicine’s Maria B. Grant, MD, Marilyn Glick Professor of Ophthalmology and corresponding author; Mervin C. Yoder, MD, IU Distinguished Professor, Richard and Pauline Klingler Professor of Pediatrics, associate dean for entrepreneurial research at IU School of Medicine, director of the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research and corresponding author; and Fletcher A. White, PhD, Vergil K. Stoelting Chair of Anesthesia, professor of anesthesia, pharmacology and toxicology.

The study was initiated by Dr. Grant and her graduate student, Tatiana Salazar, in 2011, when they were working at the University of Florida with Huisheng Xie, DVM, PhD, a veterinary acupuncturist and another senior author on the paper.

“This work is a classic example of the power of team science, where investigators in different institutions with specific expertise worked together to unravel the complexity of how electroacupuncture works to help the body respond to stressors,” said Dr. Yoder.

The researchers performed a series of lab tests initially involving horses and later expanding to include humans and rodents that followed the effects of electroacupuncture from the stimulus of the needle all the way to the brain, resulting in the release of reparative mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) into the bloodstream.

Functional MRIs of the brain demonstrated that electroacupuncture administered at specific immune points led to activation of the hypothalamus—a part of the brain that controls the nervous system and involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate and digestion—within nine to 22 minutes, depending on the species. The stem cells were mobilized into the bloodstream within two hours.

“The acupuncture stimulus we’re giving these animals has a rapid effect on neuroanatomical pathways that connect the stimulus point in the arm to responsive neurons in the spinal cord and into a region in the brain called the hypothalamus. In turn, the hypothalamus directs outgoing signals to stem cell niches resulting in their release,” said Dr. White, who is a neuroscientist at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.

The researchers found electroacupuncture treatments resulted in higher thresholds for injury-induced pain, as well as considerable increases in the presence of a type of collagen that promotes tendon repair and anti-inflammatory cells known to be predictors of faster healing time.

Dr. Grant said these findings have health implications for people and animals.

“This is a wonderful strategy to augment reparative mechanisms within the body and is complimentary to both human and veterinary medicine,” she said.

Additional authors from IU School of Medicine are co-first authors Tatiana E. Salazar and Matthew R. Richardson, Eleni Beli, Matthew S. Ripsch, Youngsook Kim, Yaqian Duan, Leni Moldovan, Ashay Bhatwadekar, Vaishnavi Jadhav, Jared A. Smith, Dmitri O. Traktuev, Keith L. March, Emily Sims, Julie A. Mund, Jamie Case, Michael E. Boulton, Sergio Li Calzi, Todd McKinley, Anantha Shekhar and Phillip L. Johnson.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Cryptic Masons’ Medical Research Foundation.

Fletcher A. White, PhD, Vergil K. Stoelting Chair of Anesthesia, professor of anesthesia, pharmacology and toxicology

Fletcher A. White, PhD, Vergil K. Stoelting Chair of Anesthesia, professor of anesthesia, pharmacology and toxicology

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Andrea Zeek