Jillian L. Capodice, LAc discusses how acupuncture and TCM can positively affect aging and memory.

by  Jillian L. Capodice, LAc

Biomedical Background

In human beings, memory, the brain’s process of coding, storing and retrieving information is crucial in defining our daily experiences.  However there is still limited information on how human memory works, what encodes it and what might cause it to decline as we age.

It was only in the mid twentieth century that psychologists began to view memory as a distinct function of the brain.  The first person that obtained evidence demonstrating localized cortical function and memory was Wilder Penfield.  He began to explore the cortical surfaces in many patients by applying electrical stimulation to various areas of the brain.  He then found that removal of certain portions of cerebral lobes resulted in specific amnesias.  These important experiments laid the groundwork for much of the research on memory and led investigators to look at the correlations in the brain and how we encode different experiences and thoughts in short and long term memory.  Many animal studies have been done that help us look at some n key factors that help us code our two forms of long term memory called explicit and implicit memory.

1.  Explicit memory: referring to factual knowledge of people, places and things. And recalled by a deliberate, conscious effort
2. Implicit memory:  referring to information on how to perform something

Based on these investigations, we now know a number of important things with regard to human memory and the brain including:

• There is no single memory storage compartment of the brain
• Memory is stored in different association areas of the cerebral cortex
• Items of knowledge have multiple representations in the brain
• Processing must occur in the brain in order for us to encode, consolidate, store and retrieve memories

From a cellular level, the mechanisms of learning and memory are subsequently very complex and involve myriad factors including complex signal transduction, differences in synaptic transmission, utilization of multiple biochemical pathways, and neuronal activities and potential change in these highly specialized cells.

So what happens to memory as we age and how is it viewed in traditional oriental medical (TOM) and traditional Chinese medical (TCM) theory?

Aging and Memory

As the life expectancy in many industrialized countries has increased, the increase in dementia, a syndrome that is characterized by impaired memory and cognitive capacity has also increased.  There are a number of hypotheses about molecular mechanisms that may contribute to aging and including:

• Changes in RNA, DNA, proteins and cellular senescence
• Chromosomal mutations
• DNA duplication errors
• Higher genetic programs for senescence as part of the human developmental process

In a well-cited long-term study, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health- National Institute on Aging, the results suggest that there are mild age-associated changes in various processes including speed of learning and problem solving, decreased visual-spatial ability and verbal fluency.  Moreover, sleep requirements reduce with age and brain patterns suggest that older adults spend more time in stages 1-3 sleep versus stage 4 and rapid eye movement sleep.  Finally physical changes including decreases in brain weight, neuronal cell death and reduction in neurotransmitter synthesis including dopamine, norepinephrine and acetycholine all potentially affect both the physical and cognitive functions in the human body as we age.

Traditional Oriental Medicine and Aging

In Traditional Oriental Medicine (TOM) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) aging is the same as the biomedical definition with regard to number of years lived and the frank decline of organs, systems and physical processes.  If examined under the lens of TCM, general changes that occur as we age include the deficiency or stagnation of the flow of qi and xue throughout the meridians and to the zang-fu organs.  Classically, blood (xue) stasis is the cardinal pathophysiologic manifestation of aging. 

In TCM, the brain is considered the ‘sea of intelligence’ and its function is to distribute qi and xue to the zang-fu organs and throughout the meridians.  The importance of the brain in both computing and also in a relaxed state helps to promote the free flow of qi and xue.  In TCM, memory and the importance of the mind are best referenced in both classical martial arts theory and in the practice of qi gong (gong is translated as ‘effort’).  However there is less information available from the traditional texts and in modern research with regard to how TCM including acupuncture, herbal medicine, qi gong and other practices might help to positively affect memory and aging.

Acupuncture and memory

As abovementioned, cellular level processing, aging and memory are tightly linked and presently, there is limited clinical research on the effect of acupuncture and memory.  However, there is a growing body of basic science work looking at the potential mechanisms of action of acupuncture, memory and aging.  Some hypotheses include increased neurotransmitter levels and changes in cortical functions have been postulated.  One recent study is listed below.

Author,  year                Title                             Description                  Outcome         Comment

Manni L et al.  Physiol Behav, 2009

Changes in cognition induced by social isolation in the mouse are restored by electro-acupuncture.

Investigation of EA on reversing induced memory impairment in male mice following social isolation.  Measurement of NGF and BDNF.

Reduced passive avoidance following EA @ ST 36.  Decreased NGF and BDNF if hippocampus.

Consistent with reports that demonstrate that EA can restore learning and memory in DM and cerebral ischemic induced rats.

EA= electroacupuncture NGF= nerve growth factor          BDGF-brain derived growth factor

DM= diabetes mellitus

TCM herbs and memory

Lee B et al, 2009 biol Pharm Bull

Effect of Bupleurum falcatum on the stress-induced impairment of spatial working memory in rats.

Study of Bupleurum falcatum (BF) in stress-induced alterations in rats.  Administration of BF prior to stress. Outcomes including changes in ChAT

Improvement in maze tests and demonstration of IHC differences in ChAT immunoreactivity in rats receiving EA.

Potential neuroprotective effect of BF on hippocampal neurons.

Other botanicals currently under investigation for potential neuroprotective effects:
• Magnolia officinalis
• Astragalus membranaceus
• Lycium barbarum

• Formula:  Di huang yin zi

Qi gong, meditation and memory

Unfortunately, there were no clinical trials found investigating qi gong practice on memory or aging, however the implication of various styles of mediation, qi gong, tai chi and yoga on memory loss and quality of life have been implicated and the theory of improving the mind-body connection by practicing qi gong as well as viewing aging and memory in the context of TOM, TCM and many other traditional medicines are powerful. 


Kandel E, Schwartz J, Jessel T . Principles of Neural Science, 4th Edition.  McGraw Hill; 2000.
Tsondu GN, Dodson-Lavelle B. Wisdom and method: extraordinary practices for the realization of longevity and optimal health. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug;1172:344-7.

Lee B, Shim I, Lee H, Hahm DH. Effect of Bupleurum falcatum on the stress-induced impairment of spatial working memory in rats. Biol Pharm Bull. 2009 Aug;32(8):1392-8.

Manni L, Aloe L, Fiore M.Changes in cognition induced by social isolation in the mouse are restored by electro-acupuncture. Physiol Behav. 2009 Dec 7;98(5):537-42. Epub 2009 Sep 3.

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