In another step toward establishing the scientific basis of acupuncture, John Longhurst has determined that strategic poking may fight heart disease by lowering blood pressure. Longhurst, a cardiologist at the University of California at Irvine, and his colleagues inserted acupuncture needles into cats near the median nerve, a traditional acupuncture point. That "acupoint" connects to a part of the brain called the rostral ventrolateral medulla, which influences the function of the heart and blood vessels. When the researchers zapped the needles with tiny pulses of electricity, the brain released chemicals that included endorphins and enkephalins. These natural painkillers seem to inhibit activity in that brain region, leading to a reduction in blood pressure that had been artificially elevated with drugs.
Acupuncture hasn't gained wide acceptance here for applications beyond treating pain. "But in China they use it for a bit of everything, including high blood pressure. If we can define the mechanisms that underlie acupuncture, there's a greater chance physicians here will use it," Longhurst says. His tests on patients with coronary artery disease and high blood pressure look promising.