BACKGROUND: Acupuncture is an alternative therapy that is widely used to treat various neurodegenerative diseases and effectively improve cognitive and memory impairment. The aim of this study was to examine whether acupuncture stimulation at the Baihui (GV20) acupoint improves memory defects caused by scopolamine (SCO) administration in rats. We also investigated the effects of acupuncture stimulation at GV20 on the cholinergic system as well as the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and cAMP-response element-binding protein (CREB) in the hippocampus. METHODS: SCO (2 mg/kg, i.p.) was administered to male rats once daily for 14 days. Acupuncture stimulation at GV20 was performed for 5 min before SCO injection. After inducing cognitive impairment via SCO administration, we conducted a passive avoidance test (PAT) and the Morris water maze (MWM) test to assess behavior. RESULTS: Acupuncture stimulation at GV20 improved memory impairment as measured by the PAT and reduced the escape latency for finding the platform in the MWM test. Acupuncture stimulation at GV20 significantly alleviated memory-associated decreases in the levels of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), BDNF and CREB proteins in the hippocampus. Additionally, acupuncture stimulation at GV20 significantly restored the expression of choline transporter 1 (CHT1), vesicular acetylcholine transporter (VAChT), BDNF and CREB mRNA in the hippocampus. These results demonstrate that acupuncture stimulation at GV20 exerts significant neuroprotective effects against SCO-induced neuronal impairment and memory dysfunction in rats. CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that acupuncture stimulation at GV20 might be useful in various neurodegenerative diseases to improve cognitive functioning via stimulating cholinergic enzyme activities and regulating BDNF and CREB expression in the brain.