Fighting Germs Through Reward Stimulation: How Feeling Good May Help Boost The Immune System

Immune cells

Immune System May Be Linked To Feeling Good: Rewarding Stimulation Found To Cause Heightened Immune Response To Germs

Feeling good may actually help you to…well, feel good.

Scientists looking at how the body fights germs when nerve cells in the brain that signal reward are lit up say that positive feelings may be linked to a supercharged immune system based on a study conducted on mice but which may have broad implications for how humans treat illness in the future.

The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine may also go some way to explaining the placebo effect, according to the authors.

By artificially initializing the activity of nerve cells in the ventral tegmental area–which is a part of the brain thought to help trigger rewarding feelings. By activating these centers, the scientists were able to effect dramatic changes on the mice’s immune systems, according to study lead Tamar Ben-Shaanan of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

Once the nerve cells in the ventral tegmental area had been activated and a day had passed, the mice were infected with E. coli bacteria. Subsequent testing revealed that the mice with artificially activated nerve cells had fewer E. coli bacteria in their bodies than mice who had not received the nerve cell activation.

In addition, some immune cells appeared to be amped up. Monocytes and macrophages were more effective at killing the E. coli following nerve cell activation.

The study’s authors and others are suggesting that, although it is still in its earliest stages, this may well be the first proven biological link between a healthy outlook–i.e. positive thinking, happiness, a sense of mental well-being–and its influence on physical health.

It has long been thought of as a sort of holy grail, the notion that the brain can help heal the body, but this study may finally prove to doubters that such a link exists.

“Our findings indicate that activation of areas of the brain associated with positive expectations can affect how the body copes with diseases,” said senior author Asya Rolls, an assistant professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Medicine.

Indeed, the study did repeat the test on a new set of mice thirty days later with the same results, indicating that it wasn’t just a fluke.

Moving forward, the study’s authors suggest that perhaps the next step could be to use mice experiments to find molecules–in other words, potential drugs–that could reproduce this cause-and-effect in a non-invasive way.

“Maybe they could be used as new therapeutic targets,” said Rolls.

The promise of the power of medicine working with the mind has never been closer.

Rewarding stimulation boosts immune system

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