Can the mind, our brain, affect our health by commanding the body to heal thyself?
Such is the challenge to our medical professionals. The brain – that three-pound wrinkled lump of gray matter which directs our movements, thoughts and memories, our decisions, hopes and dreams. It’s the organ which makes us who we are; or the other way around, make us lose who we are, through degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, which affects a lot of those who live past 85. How amazing it would be to know our brains has far more to do with our overall health; yes, research tells us so.
Recent waves of breakthrough technologies has yielded unprecedented insight into how our brains work, and a better grasp of how they go wrong. That, in turn, has led to new targeted treatments designed to fix malfunctions. Science is also revealing the surprising power of the mind, when used correctly, to heal the body.
Here are some of the amazing findings:
*Completion of the Allen Brain Atlas, the first gene map of the brain, on September 2006; an innovative new way to accelerate our understanding of the brain. The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, funded by billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, is responsible for “mapping the brain.”
*A gene called KIBRA. Scientists are already striking gold; thanks to the Allen brain Atlas. Dietrich Stephan, Ph. D, who directs neurogenomics research at the translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, has used it to learn more about a gene called Kibra, which affects our short-term memory. The Atlas revealed that the gene was activated in the hippocampus, a small seahorse-shaped brain structure that helps store memories. TGen plans to market drugs to reduce age-related memory loss, including the common short-term sort that causes senior moments and lost car keys.
*Alzhemed for Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s drugs to improve memory and give more years of mental clarity to senior patients are continuously being tested to get to the root of the problem, blocking the suspected bad actor, a molecule called beta amyloid, from forming clumps and killing brain cells. Researchers reported encouraging trial results, wherein Alzhemed also reduced the level of beta amyloid in the cerebrospinal fluid, suggesting that there’s less of the bad stuff inside the brain as well.
*AAV Therapy. A new method of gene delivery to the brain, via a harmless virus called Adeno-Associated Virus (AAV) has proven safe in early human trials. Targeted gene therapies could help patients with brain diseases that drugs alone cannot heal. Such therapies deliver healthy genes to parts of the body where faulty ones are making havoc. If trials continue to show more progress, it may be possible to treat some of the more devastating brain disorders like Parkinson’s Disease.
*The Brain’s power to heal. In one of brain’s biology’s most amazing advances, scientists have found that our brain may actually help our immune system fight disease. Certain studies have given “credibility to mind-body approaches, which had been rejected and ignored by the scientific and medical communities,” says Esther Sternberg, MD, Director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. Now scientists and doctors have begun taking the next step, harnessing the immense powers of the human brain to help people heal themselves.
For example, using special fMRI scanners and software that allowed patients to see their own brain activity, scientists at Stanford University and Omneuron, a biotech company, trained participants to reduce chronic pain by just visualizing it and learning to control it. Some were even able to decrease it by more than 40 percent, says pain expert Sean Mackey, MD, one of the study leaders.
Dr. Mackey had foreseen the day when doctors might use such imaging to train us to ease depression, battle addiction or overcome phobias. And years from now, he says, we may head to a real-time brain-imaging center the way we go to the fitness center today, and buff up parts of our brain that improve performance, memory and even intelligence.
In a series of studies since 2000, Dr. Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon, immunologist and director of the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, has shown that stimulation of the vagus nerve – a major nerve that runs from our brain stem to our belly and regulates our heartbeat, breathing and intestines – stops severe sepsis. It does so by using neurochemicals to signal immune cells, which prevents them from releasing alarm molecules that spur inflammation and cause damage. In a 2006 study, he discovered a brain circuit that could stimulate the vagus nerve to switch off inflammation.
Taken together, the studies demonstrated a hard-wired connection between the brain and immune system that Dr. Tracey calls the ”inflammatory reflex.” Normally, when inflammation spreads, the brain tells the immune system to turn it down. But in some patients with severe sepsis, that reflex fails. Could this explain why some patients with much willpower to survive seem to miraculously recover from sepsis or other medical condition? Because some people manage to command their body to rise up from the ruins, so to speak?
According to another study by virologist Ronald Glaser, PhD, of Ohio State University Medical Center, calming the mind and body might even slow the spread of some cancers. The stress hormone norepinephrine can spur lab-grown cancer cells to release two compounds that help them move through the body and then metastasis, a third compound that’s released helps supply growing tumors with nutrients. So reducing stress may prove a cancer fighter.
And after more than five years since the Allen Brain Atlas, scientists are making more amazing moves as far as using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models; UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people’s dynamic visual experiences. Wow!
According to Professor Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist and coauthor of the study published online on Sept. 22, 2011, in the journal Current Biology, “This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”
Eventually, practical applications of the technology may include a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of people who cannot communicate verbally, such as stroke victims, coma patients and people with neurodegenerative diseases. It may also lay the groundwork for brain-machine interface so that people with cerebral palsy or paralysis, for example, can guide computers with their minds.
For the meantime, let’s practice the healing power of the mind through positive thoughts as essential to producing positive results. Negative thoughts and emotions lower the immune system, while positive thought and emotions actually boost the immune system. Let us use creative imagery like seeing the cells in our body healing us; our immune system fighting off invaders; our pain being taken away by inner healing. Let’s start with the minor ailments we have as practice. Let’s bring brain power to the core!