Kenneth Kwong never expected to dabble in ancient Chinese medicine.
A physicist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Kwong developed a revolutionary technology, called functional MRI. It gives scientists live views of the brain in action, opening new horizons in the study of memory, language, and even the lure of cocaine.
Lately, Kwong also uses the machine to study acupuncture, a 2,500-year-old Chinese medical practice.
Traditional acupuncturists believe they are regulating the flow of a life energy called Qi through mysterious channels in the body called "meridians."
Kwong wanted a more scientific explanation. "I personally thought it was kind of a long shot, but you never know," Kwong said. He ended up discovering that acupuncture slows metabolism in an area of the brain that is active at times of anger or fear.
After years of watching patients turn in growing numbers to so-called alternative medicine, a growing number of researchers are giving herbs, acupuncture, and other ancient healing arts a much closer look.
Researchers from Boston to Beijing are testing herbal remedies and an array of other treatments long viewed by scientific medicine as mystical and unproven. The scientists hope the effort will bridge some of the disparate views about illness, the body, and the role of medicine.
The National Institutes of Health has a U.S. $92 million budget this year to study alternative remedies: gingko biloba to prevent Alzheimer's disease, yoga for insomnia, massage for lower-back pain. State universities from Maryland to California have set up research centers on the topic. Harvard this year followed suit with a $10 million institute for what it prefers to call "complementary and integrative medical therapies."
In one study at Massachusetts General's main campus in Boston, researchers are trying to cure high blood pressure with acupuncture. With 180 patients, $1.4 million in federal funding, and all the strictures of scientific research methodology, the study is investigating whether the treatment works.
Growing Consumer Demand
Collectively, researchers hope to sort out which treatments work, which are harmful, and which could lead to new insights into microbiology, physiology, and drug development.
They are also playing catch-up with the American public, which spent roughly U.S. $27 billion on alternative dietary products and medical treatments last year. Most of the treatments were paid for out of pocket and without consultation with the users' physicians, according to Dr. David Eisenberg. He heads Harvard's new center and was one of the first U.S. medical students to study in China in the 1970s.