This claim is by David Feinstein, pH.D. in Acupoint stimulation in treating psychological disorders: Evidence of efficacy [.pdf]

Essentially it is a claim that stimulating acupuncture points during the mental exploration of an emotional problem rapidly produces desired changes in the neurochemistry involved in that problem [pg 18 on source above].

This is allegedly the cornerstone of "energy psychology" - but I find no convincing, peer reviewed, empirical experiments on the field. All I could find was one article that doesn't seem to claim proof, positive or negative, for the "field."

Is there any truth to the claim, supported by a peer-reviewed medical publication?

  • "Changing brain chemistry" is so vague a statement that I'd confidently claim taking a breath changes brain chemistry. Or, not taking a breath. – jona Oct 6 '14 at 20:46
  • @jona fair enough; the claim being "produces desired changes" – Raystafarian Oct 6 '14 at 20:47
  • Well, what changes in brain chemistry do you desire? Our knowledge about brain chemistry is, as I said, vague. Too vague to answer this question. I'll attempt an answer based on the literature in question though. – jona Oct 6 '14 at 21:02

Since brain chemistry is an incredibly complex, vast, and, most importantly, unknown topic, nobody can answer the question itself. Brain chemicals show interdependencies much beyond our current understanding, especially with regards to psychological states and conditions. So we cannot answer the question much beyond saying: maybe. But what we can do is evaluate the specific claims the author (Feinstein) makes, and see what the references he is providing for them state.

Feinstein provides two references to studies he interprets as discussing the beneficial effect of "acupoints" on brain chemistry.

The second, Church, D., Yount, G., & Brooks, A. (in press). The effect of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) on stress biochemistry: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease., is reported to show that "the treatment significantly reduced cortisol levels". This is indeed what Church et al. report; cortisol levels fell on average by ~25%. It fell by only ~15% in the alternative treatment group (a therapeutic interview). However, it also fell by 15% in the control (no treatment) group, so basically, they compared "EFT" (supposedly similar to "acupoints") to something that had no meaningful effect on cortisol. However, in itself, touching leading to cortisol decrease is not surprising, as e.g. massages lead to lowered cortisol levels - by, it seems, on average over 30%.
Furthermore, cortisol is not a prototypical "brain chemical". Its main effect is probably regulating blood sugar, and generally nutrient metabolism. It can be used as an index of stress, but a slight and short-term decrease in cortisol is not necessarily what I'd universally consider a "desirable change in brain chemistry". However, it can be a used as a proxy of transient relaxation.

The first reference is much more vague; Feinstein writes:

Biochemical effects of acupoint stimulation are also being identified, with neurotransmitters, endorphins, and other brain chemicals apparently being influenced by tapping (Ruden, 2005).

Looking up Ruden, we find:

we would like to speculate about a potential mechanism for tapping of the fear response

And that is indeed what he does. Ruden speculates, which is okay, but that's the extent of it. He cites no direct research on the question itself, reports no actual empirical results of direct tests of his ideas. So, "do acupoints decrease desirable changes in brain chemistry"? Maybe.

Finally, let it be said that the Feinstein paper presents some truly horrible statistical methods and is an insult to the idea of meta-analysis.

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    Thank you for the response! Essentially, what I wanted to ask was "is there any real proof for the energy psychology field" - but that's way too broad of a question. – Raystafarian Oct 7 '14 at 11:15
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    It sounds like the usual quackery to me. This reviewer agrees. But, I see nothing problematic in a relaxing touch session, so there's certainly worse out there. – jona Oct 7 '14 at 15:09
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    Yeah, everything I look for is put out by the "pro" side of the table. I can't find anything on the American Psychological Association either. Thanks. – Raystafarian Oct 7 '14 at 15:17
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    Here is another devastating review. – jona Oct 7 '14 at 15:40
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    The last paragraph should be referenced. – Oddthinking Aug 22 at 2:46

Yes EFT does change the chemistry of the brain. Despite the pseudoscience feel of this therapy, there is growing evidence for this treatment as a legitimate treatment modality. This recent 2018 randomised study of 16 subjects with PTSD having done 10 clinical EFT treatment found genetic changes.

Significant differences (P < .05) were found for 6 genes—chemokine receptor 3 (CXCR3), interleukin 18 (IL-18), interleukin 10 receptor beta, tumor necrosis factor alpha–induced protein 6, leukocyte-endothelial cell adhesion molecule 1 (selectin L), and interferon-induced transmembrane protein 1. These target genes are generally known to be involved in the regulation of cellular immunity and inflammation and are associated with stress.

One of the arguments for EFT is reflected by a couple of acupuncture stimulation studies. This review article describes 2009 study of 48 subjects treated with acupuncture which found -

decreased activity in limbic and paralimbic regions including the medial prefrontal, medial parietal and medial temporal lobes, along with increased activity in the sensorimotor cortices and select paralimbic structures.

I would be much happier with the quackery argument if more reputable centers repeat the studies and disprove it, the same way they have done for Reiki and the other forms of pseudosciences. That is the problem at the moment, that there is not enough negative studies to disprove the theory and why there are positive results in low standard and low impact journals.

Also raised in this psychology StackExchange, no responses as yet-https://psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/23878/how-does-emotional-freedom-technique-eft-work/23879#23879

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    Except as already discussed on Psych.SE, the best studies that actually use a control group do not show a positive effect, and even the proponents admit they they have not shown efficacy comparable to standard treatments in the field. psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/23866/… I'm a bit bothered by your sudden evangelism here for a theory that is mainly published in very questionable journals and analyzed only by its proponents... – Bryan Krause Aug 21 at 23:17
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    Not at all. I think think it is important to produce the intellectual rigour to debunk such claims. As the complexity of pseudoscience increases, it is important to increase the finesse to counter and debate that complexity. – Poidah Aug 21 at 23:45
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    Genetic changes?? You mean that their genome changed??? – Daniel R Hicks Aug 22 at 1:18
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    "there is growing evidence" <- This claim triggers my skeptical hackles every time I see it. You can say evidence has grown (and back that up with lots of recent evidence) but you can't say it is growing, because no-one knows the results of experiments. If they did, there would be no reason to run them. For all we know, the evidence that has been gathered to date is the peak, and future evidence will demonstrate this is a useless technique. – Oddthinking Aug 22 at 3:00
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    You seem to be arguing that it is the fault of reputable research organisations that this modality hasn't been proven. The onus of proof on a new modality is to have strong evidence before it is clinically practiced. The proponents of the technique needs do demonstrate this. I imagine the ethics committees of reputable research organisations would argue that there are more promising approaches that don't rely on chi, and that putting subjects through trials that are highly unlikely to lead to good results is unethical. – Oddthinking Aug 22 at 3:04

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