Scientists who study how the brain can influence the growth of cancer have become convinced that brain cells hold a cure for the disease.
This belief stems from studies that reveal how the brain’s links to the body through the nervous system can stimulate the immune system and the way it attacks tumors. Here’s the fascinating story…
Studies now show that the activities of certain neurons in the brain can change how immune cells behave. And this knowledge, researchers theorize, could someday be used to direct immune cells to a part of the body threatened by a malignant tumor to attack the malignant cells.
Using the Brain to Mount an Attack on Cancer
The immune system is well-equipped for the job. Along with being tasked with killing off disease-causing pathogens that enter the body, there are immune cells especially designed to detect cells that have become cancerous and eliminate them.
The immune system’s ability to attack cancer has already led to the creation of immunotherapy – a cancer treatment which employs drugs and other methods to enhance the body’s own immune cells’ attacks on tumors. While this therapy is sometimes successful, the approach doesn’t always work, and it can cause serious side effects.
On the other hand, this new approach focuses on manipulating or stimulating certain neurons to fight cancer in various parts of the body.
How Brain Cells Can Affect Immune Cells
In lab tests on animals, Israeli researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have discovered that they could shift the activities of immune cells by stimulating neurons in the brain’s reward system. This part of the brain is called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). It contains neurons that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in how we feel enjoyment and pleasure. Dopamine also takes part in shaping mood and emotions.
According to the scientists, along with reinforcing positive emotions, these VTA neurons communicate with the immune system through the limbic system, a part of the brain also involved with moods and feelings. The limbic system passes the messages on to the sympathetic nervous system – which controls things like breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure.
This network allows the nervous system messages to reach the bone marrow – the spongy tissue inside bones where many immune cells are created. And those signals shape the emergence of immune cells and how they function in going after cancer cells.
The researchers are careful to point out that their tests so far have only established the basic aspects of this potential treatment. But in their investigation, they found that two weeks of stimulating the VTA section of the brain shrank lung and skin cancer tumors by, on average, more than 45 percent while the average weight of the tumors decreased by more than 50 percent.1 That’s remarkable!
“Understanding the brain’s influence on the immune system and its ability to fight cancer will enable us to use this mechanism in medical treatments,” says researcher Fahed Hakim, M.D.
Your Mood Can Also Affect Tumors
Other research has also revealed ways in which activity in the brain – and associated changes in mood – shifts the effectiveness of the body’s response to cancer.
For example, a study involving researchers at the University College London, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Sydney indicates that when you’re suffering intense mental distress – as you do when you feel anxious and depressed – your chances of dying from certain types of cancer increases.
This research analyzed the health records of more than 160,000 adults in 16 studies in the United Kingdom that covered about ten years and found that those who reported the highest levels of distress were 32 percent more likely to die during the research period of prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer, cancer of the esophagus and leukemia.2
What You Don’t Know Can Kill You
Another study that shows how the brain can influence cancer comes from China where it’s often customary not to tell cancer patients that they have cancer. The belief is that you’re doing cancer patients an emotional favor by not telling them of the dire diagnosis.
But when Chinese researchers compared the life expectancy of lung cancer patients who knew their cancer diagnosis to the survival times of those who were kept in the dark, they found that being told about the cancer more than doubled the median survival time of patients.
This study involved more than 29,000 patients. Comparing the survival time of patients at equivocal states of their disease showed that those who were told about their cancer lived a median 18.33 months. Those who were ignorant of the cancer only lived 8.77 months.3
“Although the complete disclosure of cancer diagnoses may cause emotional disturbance in patients immediately after being told of their diagnosis, it benefits them in the long term,” says researcher Yunxiang Tang, M.D., PhD.
Life on the Sunny Side
While the detailed research into the complicated relationships between the brain and cancer is relatively new, what’s been found so far is exciting. The science seems to indicate that if you can keep your mood brighter and remain optimistic about your health and purpose in life, that may help you run a lower risk of developing cancer as well as boost your chances of survival if cancer does appear.
Of course, this is far from definitively proven, but in a seven-year Dutch study, researchers found that the most optimistic cancer patients – even when their optimism didn’t seem justified because of the severity of their cancer – were less likely to die during the research and also enjoyed a better quality of life.4
To me, this shows that the best advice is to follow the kind of hopeful philosophy embraced by Stephen Jay Gould, PhD, a Harvard evolutionary biologist who was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma in July 1982. He was told by his doctor that he could only expect to live about eight months. But Dr. Gould did his own research on the disease and decided he wouldn’t accept that.
He pointed out in an essay about his diagnosis that “Attitude clearly matters in fighting cancer. We don’t know why. From my old-style materialistic perspective, I suspect that mental states feed back upon the immune system.”5
Well, the research is now showing that his “old-style materialistic perspective” was right. And it worked out well for Dr. Gould. He survived after his “eight months to live” diagnosis for another twenty-one years, dying in 2002.