New mechanisms for activating self-healing discovered
The enormous potential of the placebo effect to increase our physical and mental health has long been recognized in medicine and naturopathy. The mechanisms that make up this effect are largely unknown. New Israeli research has come a step closer to unraveling the riddle.
Professor Asya Rolls at Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa recently presented the latest findings from her research team at the FENS Forum on Neuroscience in Berlin. According to the study, the placebos stimulate the reward system in the brain. This can result in a strengthening of the immune system.
Stress makes you sick - happiness makes you healthy?
As the professor reports, many people tend to get sick when or after being subjected to too much stress. This phenomenon has been known for a long time. In her study, the scientist now rolled out the field from behind and examined whether neural networks that are involved in positive experiences also contribute to the self-healing of diseases.
The reward system promotes positive states
Probably the best known and most common example of a placebo effect comes from pharmacy. If someone takes a dummy drug without an active ingredient without knowing that it shouldn't have any effect, the reward system increases the expectation of an early recovery. As a result, pain may actually subside and healing processes may be stimulated. Rolls wants to better understand this interaction between the brain and the immune system and use it to create new therapeutic approaches.
Underestimate self-healing powers
"We underestimated the placebo's potential in treatment and recovery," explains Rolls in a press release on the study results. The mechanisms behind the placebo effect are still largely unknown, although they play a role in many important medical processes. Doctors and scientists don't understand why people are better off knowingly swallowing a sugar pill. The enormous therapeutic potential is therefore untapped, according to Rolls.
Happy mice resist infection
In the tests on animal models, the team around the expert was able to gain new insights. Using the latest technology, the researchers activated so-called dopaminergic neurons in mouse brains. These brain cells are significantly involved in the reward system. The scientists then confronted the mice with coli bacteria, which can trigger gastrointestinal diseases. The mice in which the reward system was activated showed a stronger immune response to the bacteria and recovered faster.
Thoughts and emotions affect our ability
"We know that thoughts and emotions influence our ability to cope with diseases," says Rolls - but we don't know how. With the latest technology, the scientists were able to show that thoughts and emotions influence the activity of the immune system. They found positive effects on the healing process in mice by stimulating the reward system without any active ingredient.
New therapy options through the placebo effect?
“Once we understand how this works in the brain, we can ask how this knowledge can be used to control brain activity to stimulate recovery,” explains Rolls. With the latest technical processes such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), one can specifically influence brain activity. Rolls also knows that such applications could have more dangerous consequences than previously thought.
With placebos for mental illness
The expert also sees a possible use in certain mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia. These diseases could be more closely linked to the activity of the reward system than previously thought. A better understanding of the interaction between the processing of emotions in the brain and the immune system could lead to new treatment options in this area, said the professor.
New research on humans in the starting blocks
In the next stage of research, the Israeli research team plans to test various techniques on humans. With methods such as TMS and neurofeedback, subjects should learn to control body functions that cannot normally be influenced. This is to determine whether it is possible to have a direct influence on the immune defense. This area is still new scientific territory "and this is only the beginning", summarizes the scientist. (vb)