Reuters March 27, 2001
BETHESDA, Md. (Reuters) – Medical experts gathered on Monday at the US National Institutes of Health, the very embodiment of the medical establishment, to discuss a concept once derided as New Age fluff–how emotions shape human health and disease.
Leading researchers in medicine, neuroscience, microbiology, psychology and social sciences took part in a groundbreaking conference on the mind-body interaction. But rather than dwell on pop culture self-help themes, they examined the precise physiological mechanisms involved in linking a person’s mental state to physical health.
“What has happened is that this field has suddenly become mainstream. Certainly five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, it was considered New Age,” Dr. Esther Sternberg of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health said in an interview.
“These notions that emotions have something to do with disease–that stress can make you sick, that believing can make you well–all of that has been around for thousands of years, embedded in the popular culture. And until very recently, we haven’t had the scientific tools to prove these connections in a rigorous, scientific way,” Sternberg added.
Sternberg heads a program within her institute that examines the role of emotions on the human immune system, which fights disease. The NIH, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the main biomedical research arm of the federal government.
Doctors long have noticed the connection between people’s emotional well-being and how well they cope with disease– that a depressed person, for example, might not fare as well as a happier, more hopeful person. But only recently have researchers begun to examine the precise mechanisms the body uses to translate emotions into the physiological defenses against disease.
The aim of researchers involved in the conference on mind-body interaction was to nail down the physical and molecular underpinnings of emotions and disease, using the latest medical technology. They are looking inside the brain, at hormones and at the immune system for answers.
Experts said researchers wanted to determine the neurobiological circuitry behind how various emotions–from happiness to loneliness–affected ailments such as cancer or heart disease or stroke, as well as what role sleep played in the equation. A very complex issue, they said, was the role played by the social realm–family life, interaction with friends, stress and other factors.
“Of course love is important,” said Dr. Robert Rose, director of the MacArthur Network on Mind-Body Interactions, a leader in the field. “Of course relationships are important. Of course hope and belief are important. But how important they are, and how they work, and for what illnesses they are most effective, and what the mechanisms are – when we can know that, we can harness it.”
Rose said the long-term goal was to help people help themselves in getting better – in responding better to disease and overcoming symptoms.
“The trick is to translate how the thing (an experience) goes from the brain to changes in the hormones and changes in the systems that regulate immune system cells,” he said.
“The mechanisms of the hormonal system and the immune system–they operate at a molecular level. They are signaling how a body should respond to a bacteria, a virus, or respond to a hormone that changes our blood sugar,” Rose added. Rose suggested that the field of trying to determine how emotions affected health had been trivialized in the past by self- help personalities who “talk about the magic of it and that all of us can heal ourselves by our thoughts.”
“We’re not talking about New Age,” Rose added. “We’re talking about the science of what goes on – understanding scientifically how the brain responds to the environment.”