Could positive thinking really be a legitimate treatment for cancer?
The results of a recent study carried out in Israel and published in Nature Communications suggest that the answer to this question could be yes.
How? The basic idea is that activating the reward system in your brain could boost your immune system, resulting in smaller tumors.
In the study, mice implanted with cancer cells had the reward system in their brain stimulated daily using lab tools.
After two weeks, the mice that received brain stimulation had tumors 40-50% smaller than the control group.
Our immune systems control the rate at which tumors form and grow. Some of the cells it creates (like CD8 T cells) fight against tumors.
But other cells generated by the immune system — like MDSCs (myeloid-derived suppressor cells) — actually support tumor growth.
This study shows that activating the brain’s reward system releases chemical signals that disable the MDSCs, thus letting the immune cells that fight tumors do their job properly.
The result was slowed tumor growth.
The Brain & Immune System
Scientists have known for a while that there is a strong link between the brain and the immune system.
Chronic stress, for instance, can have an adverse effect on the immune system and lead to ill health.
On the other hand, the placebo effect shows that positive stimulation of the brain can boost the immune system.
This research suggests that positive emotions from the brain’s reward center may not only boost overall immunity but also have a direct effect on cancer tissue.
Scientists are not suggesting that cancer patients throw away their meds and rely only on the power of positive thinking.
But it may be in the future that brain stimulation will be offered as treatment, and the need for chemo and radiation therapy could even be reduced.
Scientists are currently undertaking a followup study to see if direct stimulation of the reward system in the human brain can trigger a similar immunological response.
Though the results of this particular study aren't conclusive, I don’t think it’s too soon to get excited by the results of this study; after all, there's plenty of other research pointing to the benefits of emotional support through times of trauma.
Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel, for instance, proved decades ago that regular group therapy prolongs the survival of women with metastatic breast cancer.
And a recently developed class of cancer drugs work by stimulating the body’s own immunological response.
So it’s not a massive step to believe that the brain’s reward system could activate the immune system in a similar way.
In the meantime, we know that boosting the immune system can have positive health benefits.
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Have you experienced positive effects from boosting your immune system? Share your thoughts below.