In the past, I have criticised science journalists for not providing enough background in their reports. Both news stories and scientific papers obviously focus on new events and achievements, but they do so in the knowledge that new discoveries stand on giant shoulders. For this reason, when I cover new papers for this blog, I try to describe some of the research that led up to it, a tactic that fits with the growing cries for more context in modern journalism.
And yet, it’s perhaps churlish to expect this to be a routine part of science journalism when many scientists themselves don’t take up the practice. I bring this up in the light of a new paper, published today in Nature Neuroscience, about the controversial topic of acupuncture. I was going to do this as a straight write-up but actually the omissions in the paper are probably just as interesting than the science within it.
The gist is this: Nanna Goldman from the University of Rochester Medical Center claims to have found a biological explanation for the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture. She worked with mice that had inflamed paws, and managed to alleviate their pain by using a needle to pierce a traditional acupuncture point near the knee. This painkilling effect only happened when she rotated the needles after insertion.
This effect depended on a chemical called adenosine, which typically surges in concentration after any stress or injury. Adenosine works by docking at a protein called the adenosine A1 receptor, which has well established roles in suppressing pain and is found on neurons that transmit pain signals. Indeed, other chemicals that stimulated this protein had the same pain-relieving effects as acupuncture. Drugs that prevent the body from breaking down adenosine led to even more potent pain relief. And mice that lacked the A1 receptor altogether experienced no pain relief from the needles.