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SummaryObjectives To investigate neural representation evoked by acupuncture from human somatosensory cortices, especially from primary (SI) and secondary (SII) somatosensory areas. Design and setting Neuroimaging study – Blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) functional MRI was performed during acupuncture on LI4 (n = 12 healthy participants). Sham acupuncture and innocuous tactile stimulation were also applied on the same acupuncture site as control comparisons. Outcome measures Responsive neural substrates were visualized and identified based on both individual and group-level surface activation maps. Results Discrete regions within the precentral gyrus (area 4) and the fundus of the central sulcus (area 3a) were selectively activated during the real acupuncture stimulation. In SII, the activation was extended in a postero-inferior direction to the fundus of the lateral sulcus. Conclusion This specific pattern of acupuncture-related activation indicates that deep tissue stimulation (as seen in area 3a activation) and concurrent processing of sensory stimulation (as seen in activation in SII) may mediate neural responses to manual acupuncture.
The scientific discovery of novel training paradigms has yielded better understanding of basic mechanisms underlying cortical plasticity, learning and development. This study is a first step in evaluating Tai Chi (TC), the Chinese slow-motion meditative exercise, as a training paradigm that, while not engaging in direct tactile stimulus training, elicits enhanced tactile acuity in long-term practitioners. The rationale for this study comes from the fact that, unlike previously studied direct-touch tactile training paradigms, TC practitioners focus specific mental attention on the body’s extremities including the fingertips and hands as they perform their slow routine. To determine whether TC is associated with enhanced tactile acuity, experienced adult TC practitioners were recruited and compared to age–gender matched controls. A blinded assessor used a validated method (Van Boven et al. in Neurology 54(12): 2230–2236, 2000) to compare TC practitioners’ and controls’ ability to discriminate between two different orientations (parallel and horizontal) across different grating widths at the fingertip. Study results showed that TC practitioners’ tactile spatial acuity was superior to that of the matched controls (P < 0.04). There was a trend showing TC may have an enhanced effect on older practitioners (P < 0.066), suggesting that TC may slow age related decline in this measure. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate a long-term attentional practice’s effects on a perceptual measure. Longitudinal studies are needed to examine whether TC initiates or is merely correlated with perceptual changes and whether it elicits long-term plasticity in primary sensory cortical maps. Further studies should also assess whether related somatosensory attentional practices (such as Yoga, mindfulness meditation and Qigong) achieve similar effects.