Acupuncture and neurons in the skin


A study from a Swedish university has shown that the neurons in human skin can perform advanced calculations, previously thought to have been possible only in the brain [1]. Perhaps this might explain how acupuncture can affect so many processes in the body and brain or mind…

First of all, what is a neuron?  

A neuron is a nerve cell. Neurons are the basic building blocks of the nervous system; they transmit information throughout the body. There are three parts to a neuron. First, the cell body or soma. This contains all of the key components of the neuron, including the nucleus (which contains the DNA), along with the materials for building proteins (endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes) and energy (mitochondria). If the soma dies, the neuron dies. Extending from the soma is the second part of the neuron, the axon. This is a long, cable-like projection which carries messages along the length of the cell.  The longest axon in the human body is around three feet long, running from from the big toe to the bottom of the spine. Finally, the third part of the neuron consists of the dendrites or nerve endings. These branch out from the rest of the axon and/or soma, making connections with other cells and allowing the neuron to communicate with other cells and gather information about the surrounding environment [2,3].

The Swedish neuron study looked at a specific type of neuron, the first-order neurons. These branch into the skin and record touch. The researchers focused on the first-order neurons in the fingers. It was already known that neurons send signals to the brain to say that something had touched the skin, but the researchers found that the neurons were also processing geometric data about the object touching the skin. In other words, not only were the neurons telling the brain when and how intensely an object was touched, they were also sending information about the shape of the object. What this means, albeit in a rather simplified form, is that the data gathered by the first-order neurons in the fingers is not processed solely in the brain, as previously thought. Rather, our “touch experiences” are first processed by the neurons themselves and are then sent to the brain for further processing [4].

What has this got to do with acupuncture?

Previous research has shown that acupuncture works with the nervous system by stimulating particular areas of the brain. [5] Acupuncture can, for example, send messages to the brain to relieve pain [6]. While nothing concrete can be said – this would need to be the subject of major research – perhaps the new information about first-order neurons might suggest another way in which acupuncture works with the nervous system. That is, acupuncture might work with neurons on a more immediate or ‘skin-deep’ level, as well as by utilizing the nervous system to transmit messages to the brain. It’s certainly worth thinking about!



[1] J Andrew Pruszynski & Roland S Johansson: “Edge-orientation processing in first-order tactile neurons”. Nature Neuroscience (17), 1404–1409 (2014). Abstract available online.

[2] Inside the mind: Human brain.

[3] What is a neuron?

[4] Press release from Umeå University, Sweden, summarizing the neuron research.

[5] For example: Acupuncture Regulates the Nervous System – New Research

[6] Acupuncture and pain – York Clinic blog.

Image: By Own work (vectorized illustration of image by Pearson Scott Foresman) –, CC0,


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