Stimulation of acupuncture point Pc6, located above the median nerve, has been shown to be effective in treating nausea and vomiting. It has also frequently been reported to cause a heart rate reduction. The mechanism behind this autonomic reaction has not been clarified, so far. We combined brainstem-sensitive functional magnetic resonance imaging with heart rate recording and time-resolved rating of the needling sensation to measure neuronal correlates of sensations and autonomic reactions during acupuncture. On the cortical level, needling sensation activated typical pain-related areas, of which the ventromedial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex were further involved in mediating the heart rate response. In the brainstem, needling sensation activated nuclei of the descending pain control system, in which a network of hypothalamus, periaqueductal gray, rostral ventromedial medulla, and ventrolateral medulla was identified as the source of the heart rate changes. Our findings indicate that acupuncture may be a special pain stimulus, whose autonomic concomitants could explain its non-analgesic effects and in some cases even have a therapeutic potential.Highlights
□ Acupuncture needling sensation correlates negatively with subjects' heart rate. □ Cortical and brainstem activations indicate that acupuncture elicits deep pain. □ The heart rate response is an autonomic concomitant of the deep pain stimulation. □ It is mediated by a network of prefrontal areas, hypothalamic and brainstem centers.