Acupressure and the Brain

REMAP acupressure effects on the brain

By Steve B. Reed, LPC, LMSW, LMFT

Acupressure & the Brain--Research Findings:

  • Research at UC Irvine, showed that needling an acupuncture point on the foot, known as Bladder 67 which is believed to help improve vision by Traditional Chinese Medicine, does cause the visual cortex to “light-up” on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

  • Neuroscientist Seung-Schik Yoo at Brigham and Women's Hospital has shown that when a needle is placed in a point called Pericardium 6 on the wrist, known in Chinese medicine as a sensitive point for nausea, the part of the brain that controls the vestibular system (which affects balance and nausea) lights-up on scans.

  • Research at Harvard Medical School by Dr. Bruce Rosen showed that needling an acupuncture point on the hand, known as Large Intestine 4 and believed to help ease pain, caused immediate blood flow changes to the amygdala formation, hippocampal complex and anterior cingulate cortex (rostral part and Brodmann area 24) within seconds.  This reduction in blood flow correlated with calming down the very region of the brain that controls pain, mood and cravings.  Researchers said that “the reduced blood flow could lead to dopamine changes that trigger a cascade effect, releasing endorphins, the brain’s natural pain-relieving and comforting chemicals.”

  • Dr. Kathleen K. S. Hui, a neuroscientist at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging atMassachusetts General Hospital, has shown that acupuncture boosts levels of serotonin, which is often deficient in people with depression, and lowers levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, which are often elevated in sufferers of stress and pain.

  • Research Dr. A. Paraskeva and a team at the Department of Anesthesiology, St Savas Hospital, Athens, Greece found that preoperative anxiety was significantly reduced with acupuncture to Extra Point 1 (known for anxiety relief).  There was also significant reductions in values of the Bispectral Index (BIS).  The BIS is an EEG monitor used by anesthesiologists in assessing degrees of anesthesia.

  • Research has also shown acupressure to improve heart-rate variability, which is a measure of calming within the sympathetic nervous system that can indicate a reduction in stress and attenuation of the “fight or flight” response.
  • Research comparing cognitive therapy plus medication to acupressure-based treatment by Joaquin Andrade, M.D. showed the following:
    • Activating specific acupressure points correlates with enhanced serotonin secretion.
    • Norepinephrin came down to normal values in generalized anxiety patents
    • Brain mapping showed that acupressure treatment resulted in a pattern of wave normalization throughout the brain.
    • Parallel electrical and biochemical improvements were NOT found in the group receiving cognitive therapy/medication.

What this may be suggesting includes the following:

  • Activating specific acupuncture points produces specific results in specific areas of the brain.

  • The ability to calm the deep brain region known as the limbic system could explain acupressure’s effectiveness with trauma, anxiety and phobias.

  • Acupressure-based treatment “reconditions disturbed emotional responses to thoughts, memories and events.”

  • Acupressure provides a mechanism to enhance Systematic Desensitization protocols by producing a profound relaxation response deep within the limbic system rather than just at the level of peripheral muscles.

  • Acupressure could be used to calm the limbic system (amygdala, hippocampus, etc.) and prevent it from high-jacking the frontal cortex (executive functions) so that cognitive therapy could be more effective with trauma survivors.

Other Research Findings:

  • Research by psychologist Steve Wells that was published in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology showed that a form of acupressure-enhanced psychotherapy was effective in treating phobias getting results in as little as 30 minutes.

  • This study has recently been replicated by Dr. Harvey Baker of Queens College and is due to be published.

  • The REMAP Research Pilot Study found that Heart Rate Variability (HRV) measures greatly improved after REMAP treatment and correlated with client self-reports that presenting symptoms were significantly reduced after an average of 77.5 minutes of treatment.
  • small study by Dr. Charles Figley, a traumatologist with Florida State University, was reported in the Psychotherapy Networker and compared four of the newer treatments thought to be effective with trauma.  An acupressure-based form of psychotherapy out performed the other three treatments which included EMDR, NLP and TIR (Traumatic Incident Reduction therapy).  The acupressure-based treatment provided:
    • More reductions in distress as measured by a Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale,
    • More time efficient treatment (less time required) and
    • Less likelihood for abreaction than the other methods.
  • This may suggest that acupressure can enhance exposure types of therapy by reducing the intensity of treatment and speeding the desensitization effect.

Neurological Mechanisms:


An article by Ron Ruden, MD, PhD presents the neurological mechanisms that are likely at work in acupressure-enhanced psychotherapy in much greater detail.  His article can be viewed at http://psychotherapy-center.com/acupressure-enhanced-psychotherapy-a-western-scientific-perspective/

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