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Keywords:

  • alternative medicine;
  • somatotopy;
  • neuropathy;
  • Hebbian plasticity;
  • nerve entrapment

Abstract

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common entrapment neuropathy of the median nerve characterized by paresthesias and pain in the first through fourth digits. We hypothesize that aberrant afferent input from CTS will lead to maladaptive cortical plasticity, which may be corrected by appropriate therapy. Functional MRI (fMRI) scanning and clinical testing was performed on CTS patients at baseline and after 5 weeks of acupuncture treatment. As a control, healthy adults were also tested 5 weeks apart. During fMRI, sensory stimulation was performed for median nerve innervated digit 2 (D2) and digit 3 (D3), and ulnar nerve innervated digit 5 (D5). Surface-based and region of interest (ROI)-based analyses demonstrated that while the extent of fMRI activity in contralateral Brodmann Area 1 (BA 1) and BA 4 was increased in CTS compared to healthy adults, after acupuncture there was a significant decrease in contralateral BA 1 (P < 0.005) and BA 4 (P < 0.05) activity during D3 sensory stimulation. Healthy adults demonstrated no significant test–retest differences for any digit tested. While D3/D2 separation was contracted or blurred in CTS patients compared to healthy adults, the D2 SI representation shifted laterally after acupuncture treatment, leading to increased D3/D2 separation. Increasing D3/D2 separation correlated with decreasing paresthesias in CTS patients (P < 0.05). As CTS-induced paresthesias constitute diffuse, synchronized, multidigit symptomatology, our results for maladaptive change and correction are consistent with Hebbian plasticity mechanisms. Acupuncture, a somatosensory conditioning stimulus, shows promise in inducing beneficial cortical plasticity manifested by more focused digital representations. Hum Brain Mapp, 2007. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.