[Graduate Students Stepping up to the Challenge] The Science of Acupuncture：Building up Evidence and Aiming for New Horizons in Acupuncture Treatment
“I would like to scientifically elucidate the effects of acupuncture treatment." These are the words of Nao Miyamoto, a second-year student in the Graduate School of Sport and Health Science doctoral program. When most people hear the word acupuncture, they often think of Eastern medicine, but Miyamoto joined the Graduate School of Sports and Health Science with the aim of redefining acupuncture through the lens of the natural sciences and opening up new horizons for treatment.
Table of Contents
- In pursuit of scientific evidence for acupuncture in Japan
- Prior research is lacking
- Shedding light on the mechanisms of deqi in acupuncture
- A device that can achieve the effects of acupuncture without needles!
- There is more than one career path
In pursuit of scientific evidence for acupuncture in Japan
As an undergraduate student, Miyamoto decided he wanted to reevaluate acupuncture from a more scientific perspective as he was studying at a university in Tokyo to become a nationally licensed acupuncturist. He came to feel this way because the number of people receiving acupuncture treatment in Japan had been trending downward and he felt a sense of urgency about the situation.
“Considering that anyone can easily buy massage goods online, the hurdle for acupuncture may be high. But more than that, I think this hurdle is further raised by the fact the questions of what acupuncture is and what effects it has have not been clearly defined in a scientific manner," Miyamoto explains.
It was round this time that Miyamoto learned about the Graduate School of Sports and Health Science at Ritsumeikan University. Attracted by the excellent research facilities and teaching environment, he entered the school and joined the laboratory of Dr. Naruhiro Shiozawa, who specializes in biomedical engineering. This is when Miyamoto’s challenge to accumulate scientific evidence and clarify the benefits of acupuncture began.
Prior research is lacking
Miyamoto began his research, but suddenly hit a wall: he found there were almost no prior studies on the topic. “Although prior research in Europe and the United States is on the rise, the home of research is still China, where acupuncture originated. However, the findings from this prior research cannot be easily applied because the nature of acupuncture itself, such as needle thickness and techniques, differs greatly between China and Japan. Furthermore, previous studies on acupuncture in Japan had very few findings that I could use for my own research because of the small sample sizes of research subjects and the variety of research methods that were employed. So, during my master's program, I had to fumble my way through everything from experiments to analysis,” said Miyamoto.
He keeps a positive attitude about the situation, however. “Although it is a never-ending struggle, everything relating to my research is on the cutting edge, so it is very rewarding. I think one of my strengths is the fact that I enjoy adversity," he said with a smile.
Shedding light on the mechanisms of deqi in acupuncture
Acupuncture is said to have benefits like controlling inflammation and pain and lowering heart rate and blood pressure, but the mechanisms are not fully understood. Among them, deqi, the heavy sensation produced when acupuncture needles are inserted, has been claimed for nearly 2,000 years to be important in achieving therapeutic effects. However, it is still unclear why it is important in the treatment process, and the mechanisms underlying deqi and its specific benefits remain unclear. Miyamoto uses the latest equipment to analyze the deqi effect. By comparing cases where deqi occurs with cases where it doesn’t, he succeeded in clarifying the differences in heart rate, cardiac output, and blood flow changes. What’s more, he speculates that a certain period of rest is necessary for deqi to occur, which he believes is due to changes in the threshold and density of pain receptors. He is planning to submit papers on his research elucidating the deqi effect to an international journal of biomedical engineering as well as an academic journal of acupuncture.
These findings have led Miyamoto to the ambitious research project he is currently pursuing— the development of a device that can achieve the effects of acupuncture without needles.
A device that can achieve the effects of acupuncture without needles!
Miyamoto is currently working on the development of a device that can achieve the benefits of acupuncture without the need for pricking patients with needles. Perhaps some of you have heard of low-frequency therapy devices. Although readily available for purchase and use, low-frequency therapy devices stimulate muscles rather than the nerves that acupuncture has an effect on. As a result, such devices are not expected to provide the benefits that acupuncture excels at, such as regulating the autonomic nervous system and internal organs and lowering the heart rate.
Miyamoto went through a mind-boggling process of trial-and-error to determine which electrical signals most closely resembled the effects of acupuncture. Moreover, he has no previous experience in the development of electronics. “I am still running experiments, but I think this device can be used to assist in generating the deqi effect. Fortunately, I have research colleagues who develop electronic devices, so I am working on research and development with their help. The expertise required for this project has increased dramatically, so I spend almost every waking hour working on my research. More than anything, I want to develop this device,” he stated emphatically.
There is more than one career path
Ritsumeikan University selects promising, highly motivated doctoral program students to serve as Ritsumeikan University NEXT Student Fellows, and it is implementing a program to help these fellows deepen their expertise and acquire a broad range of research perspectives while working with talented researchers who are conducting cutting-edge research in a diverse array of fields. In fact, Miyamoto was chosen as one of these fellows. He described the significance of the program as follows:
“I am currently a second-year doctoral program student, so it is time for me to start looking for a job; however, my hands are full with my research, which is nearing a critical juncture. Therefore, my selection for the NEXT Fellowship Program has allowed me to receive financial assistance as well as generous support from the program coordinator. Keeping my future career in mind, I appreciate the fact that I can receive pertinent advice as well as support in building networks with various companies and people. This allows me to devote sufficient time to my research.”
He added, "As for the future, I would like to master the study of acupuncture and become a researcher. At the same time, I plan to launch a start-up company once I have perfected a device that can replicate the effects of acupuncture. I would also like to focus on training acupuncturists equipped with scientific evidence. There are so many things I want do!” stated the ambitious Miyamoto.
Opening up new horizons in the field of acupuncture will not be easy. With his tireless efforts and his passion for acupuncture, Miyamoto continues to rise to the challenge.