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Altered Small-World Efficiency of Brain Functional Networks in Acupuncture at ST36: A Functional MRI Study




Acupuncture in humans can produce clinical effects via the central nervous system. However, the neural substrates of acupuncture's effects remain largely unknown.


We utilized functional MRI to investigate the topological efficiency of brain functional networks in eighteen healthy young adults who were scanned before and after acupuncture at the ST36 acupoints (ACUP) and its sham point (SHAM). Whole-brain functional networks were constructed by thresholding temporal correlations matrices of ninety brain regions, followed by a graph theory-based analysis. We showed that brain functional networks exhibited small-world attributes (high local and global efficiency) regardless of the order of acupuncture and stimulus points, a finding compatible with previous studies of brain functional networks. Furthermore, the brain networks had increased local efficiency after ACUP stimulation but there were no significant differences after SHAM, indicating a specificity of acupuncture point in coordinating local information flow over the whole brain. Moreover, significant (P<0.05, corrected by false discovery rate approach) effects of only acupuncture point were detected on nodal degree of the left hippocampus (higher nodal degree at ACUP as compared to SHAM). Using an uncorrected P<0.05, point-related effects were also observed in the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal and occipital regions while stimulation-related effects in various brain regions of frontal, parietal and occipital cortex regions. In addition, we found that several limbic and subcortical brain regions exhibited point- and stimulation-related alterations in their regional homogeneity (P<0.05, uncorrected).


Our results suggest that acupuncture modulates topological organization of whole-brain functional brain networks and the modulation has point specificity. These findings provide new insights into neuronal mechanism of acupuncture from the perspective of functional integration. Further studies would be interesting to apply network analysis approaches to study the effects of acupuncture treatments on brain disorders.

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