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The Acupuncture Connection

By Jennifer Nachbur Article published December 5, 2006

Acupuncture
Dr. Helene Langevin, research associate professor of neurology, has shown a critical link between acupuncture and its effects on connective tissue. (Photo: Jordan Silverman)

For Dr. Helene Langevin, research associate professor of neurology and one of the nation's best-funded acupuncture researchers, an initial examination of the body's response to acupuncture needling has evolved into a six-year comprehensive examination of the reaction of connective tissue to a variety of manipulations and its potential role in eliciting a therapeutic response.

Watching Langevin and her team work with a study participant is akin to watching a carefully choreographed dance performance. One research teammate holds the ultrasound transponder, Langevin holds a robotic needling device, and another colleague controls the computer, allowing them to simultaneously measure the depth, torque and location of the acupuncture needle while capturing ultrasound video of the connective tissue's response during the process. The kinds of images and data she gathers through this process are nothing short of astounding and, up until a few years ago, were unprecedented.

Langevin's first acupuncture study, begun in 2000, discovered connective tissue was involved in producing the "tug" (or resistance to pulling out the needle) resulting from acupuncture needling. Since then, she's examined connective tissue in people and animals to try and gain a better understanding of its biomechanical function.

According to Langevin, acupuncture meridians are often located in between muscles, coinciding with the points where two connective tissue planes are coming together. Her previous research has shown that more pullout force is required to remove the needle from these points.

Grant supports new approach
Though she's recently received her fourth National Institutes of Health grant, Langevin is about to experience a first; a study that will look at normal versus abnormal connective tissue.

"All of our grants so far have only looked at normal people, animals and tissues," said Langevin. "This is the first time we are looking at pathology — people with low back pain."

The $1.9 million, five-year award from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine will compare the acupuncture needling response in the connective tissue of 80 patients with back pain and 80 patients without back pain. In a pilot study of ten subjects conducted by Langevin and her colleagues, it appeared that needle response was abnormal in people with low back pain.

"If we can show that needle response is abnormal in people with low back pain, then we will have enough data to move onto the next level, which is to test whether these abnormalities can be reversed with treatment" says Langevin.

This latest grant is Langevin's third R01 to date. She and her team are just completing their second R01 — a study involving mostly animal work — and submitting a competitive renewal for that research. She is also applying for a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Clinical Scientist Translational Research Award and has three papers pending publication. Recently featured in a Boston Globe Sunday Magazine "Profile," Langevin is currently in Asia presenting her research findings and shows no signs of slowing down in the future. After all, she has a point to make.

For more information about Langevin's studies, contact Debbie Stevens-Tuttle in the department of neurology at 656-5552.