Health: Can The Mind Help Cure Disease?

Scientists study the links between mental and physical well-being

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When Donald arrived for his first group-therapy session at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, he was in a wheelchair, suffering from malignant melanoma and severely depressed. But after he spent six months sharing stories and good times with other cancer patients and learning relaxation techniques, his mood had improved considerably -- and so had his condition. As his attitude brightened, an important change took place inside his body: an increase in the activity of his "natural killer cells," a crucial link in the immune system. By year's end, though he still had cancer, Donald was able to dance a jig for his group.

What role, if any, do emotions play in preventing or curing illness? The question is older than Western medicine, but it has been given new importance by modern science's discovery of innovative ways to measure the mind's impact on the body's health. Scientists are studying whether, and to what extent, disease can be affected by the use of such mind-body techniques as meditation, yoga, group therapy, guided imagery (visualizing the desired effect) and relaxation. "There is little question that we can alter the course of disease by manipulating psychological factors," contends Dr. Robert Ader, a professor at the University of Rochester medical school and a pioneer in mind-body research. "But to make this knowledge useful to physicians, we need to understand the mechanisms." Dr. N. Herbert Spector, a neurophysiologist at the National Institutes of Health, is convinced that when researchers can pin down the appropriate clinical uses for mind-body therapies, the result will be "a revolution in medical practice."

For many patients, the revolution has already begun. Increasingly, people are using mind-body therapies on their own, even while seeking conventional medical treatment. A spate of books on the subject has been published in * recent years. The latest is Norman Cousins' new best seller, Head First: The Biology of Hope (Dutton; $19.95), which documents recent strides made in mind- body research.

Stories of seemingly miraculous recoveries may grab the public's attention, but the real work is being done quietly and out of sight. In laboratories around the world, medical researchers are exploring the mind-body connection, separating myth from reality, intuition from fact, belief from science. Much of this work centers on the actions of neuropeptides, molecular messengers that travel through the body linking the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. In the 1970s neuropharmacologist Candace Pert at the National Institute of Mental Health found that these peptides bind to receptors on a cell, beginning a cascade of biomedical effects, including protein synthesis and cell division. "It's like ringing a doorbell. All kinds of reactions happen inside," says Pert. "The whole metabolism of a cell can be altered." Because their activity fluctuates with emotional states of mind, Pert refers to these peptides as "the biochemical units of emotion." Exhilaration triggers certain neuropeptides; depression sets off others.

Following Pert's landmark work, research on mind-body connections accelerated. Recent examples:

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