Can Our Emotions Impact Tumor Growth?

Maria Cohut answered this question in an article that was fact checked by Jasmin Collier. Can we tell our brain to actually boost the body’s immune response against cancer tumors? According to researchers they do believe the answer to this is “yes,” by manipulating the activity of the brain’s reward system.

It has been demonstrated in the past there is a relationship between a person’s emotional state and cancer, but mostly in relation to negative feelings such as stress and depression.

This is without a physiological map of the action mechanism with the brain, according to Prof. Asya Rolls who is based at the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

Rolls and her colleagues are puzzled by the notion that emotions processed by the brain could influence the turn that cancer tumors can take once they are lodged inside the body. Stress, anxiety and depression could have a negative impact on the body’s ability to fight disease, but could emotions, or a simulation of emotions, reinforce our immune response?

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Prof. David Spiegel of the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, has shown an improvement in the patient’s emotional state may affect the course of cancer, but it was not clear how it happened. Because of this, Prof. Rolls and her team conducted a study to explore these mechanisms and learn more about how the emotions in the brain can influence the way in which the immune system responds to cancer. They have published the study in the journal Nature Communications, where they report their findings. The involvement of the immune cells’ involvement in cancerous processes is a double-edged sword. Certain components in these cells happen to also support tumor growth by blocking the immune response and creating an environment beneficial to growth.

Other studies have suggested activity in the brain’s reward system can help to regulate the way in which the immune system functions. Rolls snd her colleagues conducted a preclinical study based on these notions in which they experimented with manipulating the brain’s reward system in mouse models of melanoma and lung cancer.

They looked at the dopamine-releasing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which is a key region of the reward system. This area communicates with the limbic system that processes emotions and other things. The interaction seemed to extend to the immune system by affecting the nervous system.

Once the immune system is activated, it also appears to create a resilient memory of the foreign agents it has been exposed to and that which allows it to respond more efficiently to those pathogens.

After 14 days of repeated VTA activations, researchers saw tumor size was reduced by 46.5% on average, and tumor weight decreased by 52.4%. Because people react differently, they will be able to take advantage of this potential for healing if they can gain a thorough understanding of the mechanisms and simply give it a try.

Dr Fredda Branyon