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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT


Electric theories on acupuncture

Scientists have found it impossible to explain why acupuncture works

By Roger Harrabin of BBC Radio 4's Today programme

A British scientist has come up with a new theory on how the ancient Chinese medical art of acupuncture might be explained by modern science.

At the moment it is impossible to explain scientifically how sticking fine needles into the arms or legs could effect the body's vital organs.

Dr Ho: Acupuncture could be creating bio-electrical disturbances
But a paper by Dr Mae Won Ho, Reader in Biology at the Open University, speculates that the needles may be creating tiny bio-electrical disturbances.

These are then transmitted by the water that surrounds collagen proteins in the skin and muscles. She believes it may explain what Chinese doctors call the body's invisible energy force of chi.

Conduction by collagen

Collagen is the most commonly found protein in our skin, muscles and tendons. The collagen molecules are aligned into long fibres which twist round each other like to work like a three-core electrical flex, according to Dr Ho.

[ image: Acupuncture could be creating electrical currents in the body]
Acupuncture could be creating electrical currents in the body
"The alignment of the fibres is especially suited to the mechanical functions that are performed and our theory is that it is not just mechanical, they can conduct electrical current as well," she says.

The idea of water surrounding proteins conducting electrical messages through the body may sound far-fetched. But some scientists say we know so little about the way organisms work on the bioelectrical level that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Normally water molecules are highly active - bonding with other water molecules and then switching their molecular partner in a perpetual liquid dance. But when they come in contact with a substance like collagen, they abandon the dance and arrange themselves in a sort of scaffold three or four molecules thick.

Ordered water

This is known as ordered water, according to Tony Watts, professor of bio-chemistry at Oxford. He says: "It is well established that water does order itself when it meets up with protein like collagen. And so water does form large networks of ordered molecules on the surface on a wide range of biological molecules."

The ordered water networks appear neither liquid nor solid - more of a type of liquid crystal, rather like the liquid crystals in many computer screens and watches. Research at the University of Wales and also in America suggests that it is possible to improve the electrical conductivity of proteins like collagen by surrounding them with a coat of water.

[ image: Water: The key to effective conductivity]
Water: The key to effective conductivity
Dr Ho postulates in The American Journal of Alternative Medicine that the very special layer of water round collagen in the body makes it ideal for the transmission of tiny bio-electrical impulses from one part of the body to another.

She thinks the structured water networks along the chains of collagen proteins may just be the channels of vital energy that acupuncturists refer to as meridians.

"What we think is that the kind of conducting water channels that more or less follow the collagen fibres may correspond to the so-called meridians of the acupuncture channels. So when you put a needle in you are giving a local electrical stimulation which then enables this positive electricity to be conducted to some distant sites."

New approach

Until now the only scientific verification of how acupuncture works has been by studying how it effects the production of natural pain-killers. Dr George Lewith, a physician at Southampton Hospital who also researches into complementary medicine, says this is now widely understood.

Dr Lewith: Acupuncture stimulates opium-like substances
"When you give someone acupuncture, it stimulates the release of opium like substances - or endorphins - and these very effectively block pain," he says.

[ image: Dr Ho's theories could change the way acupuncture is considered and performed]
Dr Ho's theories could change the way acupuncture is considered and performed
But pain is a small part of acupuncture theory. In fact the most scientifically conclusive effect of acupuncture is in treating nausea by needling an acupuncture point on the wrist - and that's nothing to do with pain relief.

Dr Ho proposes a series of experiments to test her highly speculative hypothesis as to how such an effect might be achieved. But researchers in the field say grants for this sort of basic science are very hard to obtain - especially if they refer to something like complementary medicine.

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