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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 33  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 122-127

Chinese herbs and acupuncture to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer's disease

1 Bioinnovation Center, Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation; Department of Life Sicence, National Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan
2 Bioinnovation Center, Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation; Department of Pathology, Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, Hualien, Taiwan
3 Department of Life Sicence, National Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan
4 Bioinnovation Center, Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation; Department of Neurosurgery, Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, Hualien, Taiwan

Date of Submission27-Mar-2020
Date of Decision07-May-2020
Date of Acceptance22-May-2020
Date of Web Publication06-Feb-2021

Correspondence Address:
Shinn-Zong Lin
Department of Neurosurgery, Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, 707, Section 3, Chung-Yang Road, Hualien
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/tcmj.tcmj_51_20

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Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a neurodegenerative disease with a variety of causes. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which includes the two main approaches of acupuncture and herbal medication, views the human body as a self-controlled system network. Fundamental theories, including “qi,” the five elements, and the theory of viscera, form the basis for classification. Diseases in humans are considered to be caused by an imbalance of “yang qi” and “yin qi” that lead to the nonhomeostasis of organs. Acupuncture is derived from 12 main meridians and 365 acupuncture points characterized by “blood and qi.” Needling of different positions corresponds to specific disease treatments to increase qi. Treatment with Chinese herbal medicines is based on syndrome differentiation characterized as “Zheng” which differs from the cause orientation approach of Western medicine. In this article, we review basic and clinical research studies that describe TCM herbs and acupuncture for the treatment of AD. Moreover, we propose that these two approaches be integrated to improve the outcomes for AD patients.

Keywords: Acupuncture, Alzheimer's disease, Qi, Traditional Chinese medicine, Zheng

How to cite this article:
WuLi W, Harn HJ, Chiou TW, Lin SZ. Chinese herbs and acupuncture to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer's disease. Tzu Chi Med J 2021;33:122-7

How to cite this URL:
WuLi W, Harn HJ, Chiou TW, Lin SZ. Chinese herbs and acupuncture to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer's disease. Tzu Chi Med J [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jun 30];33:122-7. Available from: https://www.tcmjmed.com/text.asp?2021/33/2/122/308823

  Introduction Top

Alzheimer's disease (AD) features complex pathogenesis involving multiple pathophysiological processes and has become a serious public health problem worldwide[1]. The complex mechanisms of disease and the continued failure of drug development have created an urgent need for additional treatment options for AD[2].

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) using herbal products have been proven to prevent and treat dementia[3],[4], and many small molecules that effectively inhibit AD have been extracted from Chinese herbs[5]. Chinese herbal medicines show potential for the treatment of AD. Acupuncture is another standard therapeutic approach of TCM. Using the scientific method, there has been continued exploration of Chinese herbal medicines combined with acupuncture to increase the practical benefits of AD treatment.

Beta-amyloid accumulation

The major hypotheses of AD include the amyloid hypothesis and the tau hypothesis. The genes associated with beta-amyloid deposits include amyloid-beta precursor protein (APP)[6] and β-secretase-1 (BACE-1)[7], while the genes that primarily regulate γ-secretase are presenilin-1 (PSEN-1) and presenilin-2 (PSEN-2)[8]. Under normal conditions, the APP is cleaved by α-secretase to produce a peptide of 83 amino acid residues that is then further processed by γ-secretase to form the P3 peptide fragment (24 or 26 residues). Peptides of this length are easily metabolized. Deregulation of these genes can lead to enhanced abnormal cleavage and the formation of amyloid peptides that are not easily metabolized (40 or 42 residues)[9].

Tau protein phosphorylation

Tau is a microtubule-associated protein that is abundant in the central nervous system. In neurodegenerative disease such as AD and Parkinson's disease, Tau aggregates are commonly found, forming neurofibrillary tangles in the brain[10].

Other hypotheses

Among patients diagnosed with AD, only 25% develop dementia caused by limbic predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy (LATE)[11]. Early-onset AD is usually attributed to genetic mutation. These genetic mutations include APP BACE-1, PSEN-1, and PSEN-2. However, 95% of AD patients have late-onset AD, which is not necessarily caused by genetic mutation[12]. The complex natures of this disorder and the continued failure to develop effective drugs for AD have created an urgent need for more treatment options.

  Traditional Chinese Medicine Hypothesis: Zheng Top

In TCM, the syndrome known as “Zheng” is a major concept in the diagnosis of disease. Zheng can be understood through the following basic features: (1) Visual observation of the appearance of the tongue and detection of the pulse condition reflect disturbances of the “Zang-Fu” organs, channels and collaterals, and qi and blood in the body. (2) Different illnesses may have the same Zheng. Through the visual, auditory, and tactile senses the physician observes the patient's appearance and asks questions regarding the patient's feelings, life habits, and physiological changes. The major identification methods of Zheng comprise eight theoretical perspectives: Qi, blood, body fluids, zang-fu, channel collateral, six-channel, Wei-Qi-Ying-blood, sanjiao, and disease causes [13],[14],[15],[16].


Chinese medicine combines Chinese philosophy with rules of thumb and treats diseases by natural methods. In the formation and development of Chinese medicine, the concept of “qi,” often translated as vital energy, is the backbone of the entire system. This includes two main points. The first is the dynamic balance between people and the outside environment; for example, the different seasons and changes in the weather produce wind, cold, heat, moisture, dryness, and fire. When the immune system is weakened, people are unable to bear the natural changes and become sick. The second regards to health protection. Qi flows through the circulatory system, with a strengthening effect on the corresponding organs that are active at different time points. The time period from 1 AM to 3 AM, for example, is considered the most vigorous time for liver metabolism; if one does not rest during this time, the burden on the liver will increase. There are many methods to regulate the circulation of qi in the body, with the major methods being Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health has acknowledged that acupuncture therapy is an effective treatment for several common diseases, such as back pain, knee pain, headaches, and osteoarthritis[17],[18].

Traditional Chinese medicine hypothesis for dementia

TCM explained as a cybernetic approach regards the human body as a self-controlled system network. TCM use qi, five elements, and the theory of viscera as a basis for classification. Chinese herbal medicine also features the same classification system. The theory of Chinese medicine views dementia as a result of the shrinking of the brain. TCM has put forward a theory that “kidneys give rise to the marrow, and the brain is the sea of marrow” [Figure 1]; thus, deficiency in kidney functions will lead to dementia [19],[20],[21]. Chinese herbs and acupuncture may increase the chances of treating AD. Continued exploration of Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture treatment will help provide novel directions for the development of AD drugs and offering practical treatment benefits.
Figure 1: Five elements corresponding to different body organs. Chinese medicine classifies the five internal organs by five elements. Chinese herbal medicines are also classified using the same system. The brain is considered to be closely related to the function of the kidneys. Chinese medicine teaches that the bone marrow, kidneys, and brain function closely together. Kidney deficiency will lead to less bone marrow, which leads to insufficient blood and cerebral dysfunction and ultimately dementia

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  Effects and Mechanisms of Action of Small-Molecule Drugs Extracted from Chinese Herbs In ad Treatment Top

The earliest pharmacopoeia from China is the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (“Divine Farmer's Pharmacopoeia”)[22]. In CA 1596, Li Shi-Zhen compiled the Ben Cao Gang Mu (“Pharmacopoeia Classified by Section and Sub-section”). Li's consolidation of the previous pharmacopoeia together with his own views and observations, created a more thorough pharmacopoeia[23]. TCM classifies Chinese herbs according to qi and five elements theory. The brain and kidneys are categorized in the water element. We summarize the effects and possible mechanisms of small-molecule drugs extracted from 10 commonly used TCMs and the effects of these molecules on meridians and organs in the AD setting.

Epimedii folium

Epimedii Folium (Yin yang huo; is a major therapy for kidney yang deficiency syndrome, and it can improve androgen hormone levels as well as combat wind qi, damp qi, and cold qi blocking circulation[24],[25].

Radix polygalae

Radix polygalae (“Yuan Zhi;” is a medicinal plant mainly used for the treatment of “insomnia with syndrome of incoordination between heart and kidney” and to improve memory [26],[27],[28].

Morinda officinalis

Morinda officinalis (“Ba Ji Tian;” is a TCM used to tonify the kidney and strengthen yang. Morinda officinalis has hypoglycemic and antioxidant activities[29].

Acorus tatarinowii schott

Acorus tatarinowii Schott (“Shi Chang Pu;” has mainly been used for the treatment of neuron-associated and digestive diseases in the clinical practice of TCM[30]. It can also improve the viability of cardiac myocytes and contribute to therapeutic effects on dementia[31],[32].

Rehmannia glutinosa

Rehmannia glutinosa (“Dihuang;” can invigorate the kidney, “nourishing yin clearing heat,” and also ameliorates learning and memory impairment [33],[34],[35].

Glycyrrhiza uralensis

Glycyrrhiza uralensis (“Gan Cao;” , is an herbal medicine used for the treatment of sore throat, cough, bronchitis, peptic ulcers, arthritis, and allergic diseases[36].

Salviae miltiorrhizae

The major function of Salviae miltiorrhizae (“Danshen;” is the activation of blood circulation to dissipate blood stasis. It also offers beneficial effects in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases[37],[38].

Panax ginseng

Panax ginseng (“Renshen;” has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anticancer effects. It also improves psychological and immune function as well as conditions associated with diabetes and is used in the treatment of frailty and aging-related symptoms, such as fatigue and hypertension[39],[40].

Astragalus membranaceus

Astragalus membranaceus (“Huang Qi;” can be used to treat “qi deficiency constitution”[41]. It can also enhance the natural defense mechanisms in the heart, brain, kidney, intestine, liver, and lung [42],[43],[44].

Angelica sinensis

Angelica sinensis (“Danggui;” used to treat invigorating blood and treating female irregular menstruation and amenorrhea. The Angelica sinensis can effectively inhibit inflammation and upregulated growth factor[45].

  12 Main Meridians Top

In addition to Chinese herbal treatment, acupuncture is another method used to treat AD. The principle of acupuncture is derived from the study of the 12 main meridians and 365 acupuncture points. The 12 main meridians comprise the path of blood and qi that flow through various organs[46]. The meridian system can be further divided into the meridian–collateral system and the tendon–skin system. The meridian–collateral system relates to nutrition and blood (nutrient qi), whereas the tendon–skin system involves the regulation of motor function and body protection (defensive qi). The meridian–collateral system is composed of 12 principal meridians, eight extra meridians and 15 collaterals. The tendon–skin system includes 12 sinew meridians and 12 cutaneous meridians[47]. The 12 main meridians are distinguished by their yang or yin qi, three levels of energy flow ranging from strong to weak, and direction of flow to either hand or foot [Table 1]. In addition to the 12 meridians, there is the governor vessel (GV) and conception vessel (CV). GV is located on the back, runs from head to hip and has 28 acupuncture points. CV located on the front of the body and has 24 acupuncture points. The six yang meridians have acupuncture points with confluence (i.e., pairing) in CV, and the six yin meridians have acupuncture points with confluence in GV.
Table 1: The system of meridians and collaterals

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  Acupuncture Treatment for Dementia Top

The bladder (BL) and gallbladder (GB) meridians are very important for the treatment of the brain. The BL meridian has a close relationship with the kidneys and can improve blood supply [Figure 2]a and [Figure 2]b[48]. There is a major focus of GB acupuncture points on the head, directing impacting the brain [Figure 2]c[49]. These points are effective in treating dementia[50]. Acupuncture points mark the places where needles can be placed in the body without causing serious harm. Different positions correspond to different disease treatments. The local area comprising an acupuncture point contains a combination of mast cells and blood vessel and nerve networks [Table 2][51]. Acupuncture points, including Dazhui (GV14), Baihui (GV20), and Shenshu (BL23) are considered to have beneficial effects on dementia. Dazhui is the convergence of all positive meridian points, and Baihui is the convergence of the Tai yang, Shao yang, and Jue yin meridian points. These two acupuncture points are common choices for the treatment of dementia[52]. The term Shenshu means that the kidneys transport cold and moisture to the foot Tai Yang meridian. Dazhui, Baihui, and Shenshu, these three points are related to the kidneys and foot Tai yang meridian[53]. Zusanli (stomach meridian [ST]36) can effectively regulate the physiological functions of the spleen, stomach, and kidney[54]. Baihui and Zusanli were the first choice acupuncture points used treatment dementia [55],[56],[57]. Xuehai (spleen meridian [SP]10) and Sishencong (EX-HN 1) are also often used to treat dementia[58].
Figure 2: Mapping of the four major meridians directly related to Alzheimer's disease: bladder, heart, gallbladder, and kidney. The dots indicate acupuncture points along the lines of qi circulation for each meridian. The direction of qi flow is indicated by the arrows. The bladder meridian flows from the head to the back (green line) (a) Kidney, heart, (b) bladder, (c) gallbladder.

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Table 2: Twelve main meridians that connect and regulate the flow of qi through different organs in the body

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Alternative acupuncture points to treat dementia include Taixi (Kidney meridian [KI]3)[59], Danzhong (CV17)[60], Zhongwan (CV12)[60], Qihai (CV6), Waiguan (Triple Burner meridian [TE]5), Xuanzhong (GB39), Neiguan (Pericardium meridian [PC]6), Yintang (GV29), Sanyinjiao (SP6), and Dazhong (KI4). The effects of acupuncture on meridians require scientific verification, but analysis of the main meridians is challenging. Fourier analysis can detect the complete quantitative expression of the pressure wave. Wang et al. proposed that the detection of harmonic components could facilitate an understanding of the circulatory system in terms of the different meridians[61],[62]. This is a potential method for demonstrating the effects of acupuncture.

  Moxibustion Top

Methods of treating diseases through acupuncture points include Acupuncture (“zhen;” and moxibustion (“jiu;”. Acupuncture is to insert a needle into acupuncture points to treat diseases, which is an invasive treatment; moxibustion ignites Artemisia argyi (“Ai Cao;” and through heat generated by cauterization to stimulate the acupuncture points. The function includes adopted to resolve the stagnation, promote circulation in meridian, regulate qi and blood circulation[63]. The moxibustion combine with Typhonium Rhizome (“Bai Fu Zi;” was applied to Baihui (BL 20) and the suspended moxibustion was used on Shenting (BL 24) and Dazhui (GV 14). There has a function of improving vascular dementia and the activity of daily living[64]. In the animal model of AD, moxibustion proved to be helpful for learning and short-term memory capacity[52]. The mechanism of moxibustion treatment of AD is to reduce the content of APP in the frontal cortex and hippocampus[65]. The moxibustion combined with acupuncture is better than the single treatment method to improve the cognitive function and daily activity ability of patients with dementia[66].

  Conclusions Top

Given the growing research on the identification of active ingredients from Chinese herbs and their use in the treatment of dementia and cognitive impairment, there are also clinical trials using Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture to treat AD. If these treatments in effect may be possible to reduce the cost of new drug development and help patients avoid unwanted side effects. This will facilitate the development of future treatments for AD. Furthermore, the combination of herbal medicines with acupuncture may provide additional benefit and could form the basis of a new, synergistic treatment approach for AD.

Financial support and sponsorship

This research was funded by Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, grant number TCMF-SP 109-03.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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