Sunday, October 9, 2011 - 0 comments

The Mind-Body Interaction in Disease : 1. Preview

By : Esther M. Sternberg and Philip W. Gold

The belief that the mind plays an important role in physical illness goes back to the earliest days of medicine. From the time of the ancient Greeks to the beginning of the 20th century, it was generally accepted by both
physician and patient that the mind can affect the course of illness, and it seemed natural to apply this concept in medical treatments of disease. After the discovery of antibiotics, a new assumption arose that treatment of infectious or inflammatory disease requires only the elimination of the foreign organism or agent that triggers the illness. In the rush to discover new antibiotics and drugs that cure specific infections and diseases, the fact that the body’s own responses can influence susceptibility to disease and its course was largely ignored by medical researchers.

It is ironic that research into infectious and inflammatory disease first led 20th-century medicine to reject the idea that the mind influences physical illness, and now research in the same field—including the work of our laboratory and of our collaborators at the National Institutes of Health—is proving the contrary. New molecular and pharmacological tools have made it possible for us to identify the intricate network that exists between the immune system and the brain, a network that allows the two systems to signal  each other continuously and rapidly. Chemicals produced by immune cells signal the brain, and the rain in turn sends chemical signals to restrain the immune system. These same chemical signals also affect behavior and the response to stress. Disruption of this communication network in any way, whether inherited or through drugs, toxic substances or surgery, exacerbates the diseases that these systems guard against: infectious, inflammatory, autoimmune and associated mood disorders.

The clinical significance of these findings is likely to prove profound. They hold the
promise of extending the range of therapeutic treatments available for various disorders,
as drugs previously known to work primarily for nervous system problems
are shown to be effective against immune maladies, and vice versa. They also help
to substantiate the popularly held impression (still discounted in some medical circles)
that our state of mind can influence how well we resist or recover from infectious
or inflammatory diseases.
Immune response can be
altered at the cellular level
by stress hormones.

The brain’s stress response system is activated in threatening situations. The immune system responds automatically to pathogens and foreign molecules. These two response systems are the body’s principal means for maintaining an internal steady state called homeostasis. A substantial proportion of human cellular machinery is dedicated to maintaining it.

Next : Anatomy of the Stress and Immune Systems


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