New research shows that acupuncture may help to improve the subtle memory loss that precedes the development of dementia, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Researchers also noted that acupuncture may be particularly effective when combined with drug treatment, although further research is needed.
For the new research, Chinese scientists examined the Western and Chinese research databases for relevant trials comparing acupuncture and medical treatment that had been published up to July 2015.
Out of 10 trials, five studies published in 2012 and 2013 that involved a total of 568 people were deemed suitable for inclusion in the new study. Three directly compared acupuncture with the drug nimodipine, while two evaluated acupuncture combined with nimodipine.
The number of participants in each study varied from 26 to 94. Acupuncture treatment was provided three to five times a week for eight weeks in four of the trials, and for three months in the remaining one.
Analysis of the pooled data showed that those who received acupuncture fared better than those on nimodipine alone. They also achieved better scores on two of the principal tests used to assess MCI and dementia: the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) and picture recognition.
The researchers add that a combination of acupuncture and nimodipine significantly improved MMSE scores when compared to nimodipine alone.
Three of the trials reported side effects, which for acupuncture included fainting during treatment and slow bleeding (errhysis) at the needle sites. Side effects for nimodipine included gut symptoms and mild headache.
Despite the promising findings, further large rigorous clinical trials in Western settings are needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for treating MCI, the researchers concluded.