Meanwhile, some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are welcoming the scrutiny as a chance to prove how much their treatments have to offer. They note that their techniques are based on thousands of years of recorded case histories and are practiced alongside conventional medicine in Chinese hospitals.
"We want to join the modern scientific world, and to convince the modern medical arena to accept this service," said Keji Chen, a leading authority on integrating Eastern and Western medicine and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Medicine in Beijing.
Yet some traditional practitioners are wary of the new attention from academic medicine, fearing that conventional doctors simply want to debunk the competition, or cash in on it.
Chinese medicine is hard to test. Scientific trials depend on standardized doses of medication; in traditional Chinese medicine, a different herbal mixture is made for every patient. Western medicine looks at discrete ailments and tries to fix them; traditional Chinese medicine tries to restore a sense of balance in one's relationships with the body, society, and nature.
And how do researchers study the placebo, or dummy-pill, effect in a trial of acupuncture, when patients know whether they've been stuck with a needle or not?
Eisenberg said there are ways to disguise the treatment. For example, there are spring-mounted needles that prick but don't go as deep as in acupuncture.
Some researchers bend over backward to insist they are sober scientists, not enthusiasts looking for data to support their beliefs.
"The purpose is not to prove that all Chinese medicine is right," said Dr. Kathleen Hui, a University of Michigan-trained microbiologist who convinced Kwong, the physicist, to look at acupuncture. "I want to show what is good, what can be improved, what should be discarded," she said.
Kwong's research using functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), in which 13 people were studied, showed that the parts of the brain affected by conscious sensation are less affected by acupuncture than by a normal pinprick.
What really excited the researchers, however, was that deeper areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which regulates emotions, showed a decrease of activity during acupuncture. Heightened activity in the amygdala is associated with emotions such as anger and fear.
At Massachusetts General, acupuncture is already being used for pain relief.
Now, cardiologist Randall Zusman, Qunhao Zhang, and others are investigating its effect on blood pressure, in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Zusman was initially skeptical about joining the study. "I'm a pill-pusher," he said. But he is impressed with the drop in some patients' blood pressurealthough he won't know until after the study is over whether they are getting acupuncture or a placebo, with random needle sticks.
Copyright 2001, Boston Globe