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Definitely. Psychoneuroimmunology is the field that combines study of endocrine, neurological and immune functions. Problem is it’s not mainstream. Mainstream endocrinologists, neurologists, immunologists mine their respective streams in strict silos. Psychoneuroimmunology thus remains a fringe field, its results often greeted with skepticism and disdain by the standard bearers of these fields.

Mosaic science recently extensively reported on one of the most famous studies mainstream immunologists hardly ever discuss (1). In 1975, Robert Ader, a physiologist at the University of Rochester, New York, gave rats saccharin to drink. He conditioned some of them to associate the sweet saccharin taste with an aversive experience by simultaneously infecting them with Cyclophosphamide to make them feel sick. When sugar water + cyclophosphamide conditioned rats were offered sugar water alone, they refused to drink it. So Ader then force-fed it to them using an eyedropper. All the rats died. To understand what happened, Ader compared immune responses of aversion-conditioned rats to placebo-treated ones and found circulating antibodies of the former were dramatically lower (2). He concluded these rats had become immunosuppressed. While that interpretation was an error, simply because cyclophosphamide gets rid of B cells, the source of antibodies, that still doesn’t explain why aversion-conditioned rats should die from drinking innocuous sugar water.

More recently, Kevin J. Tracey showed that rats that should have died from septic shock from lethal endotoxin injection didn’t simply because their vagus nerve was simultaneously stimulated (3). Simply remarkable that parasympathetic pathway stimulation at the right moment was all it took to avert an irreversible and precipitous fatal collapse.

These observations lead us directly to the Placebo effect. Far from being inert/neutral, the placebo experience induces tangible physiological effects not just in conditions where brain involvement is well known but also in others where it isn’t. Clearly, the brain is involved. Fabrizio Benedetti, a prominent placebo researcher even goes so far as to say that, ‘words and drugs may use the very same mechanism and the very same biochemical pathways‘ (4).

Problem with seeking a prescription for how to use brain health to improve immune health is best described by social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett. In a nutshell, Nisbett says we are largely unaware of our motivations, why we do what we do, because we are unaware of our cognitive process (5) (emphasis mine).

‘The single thing I’ve done that has gotten the most notice was my work with Tim Wilson showing that we have very little access to the cognitive processes that go on that produce our behavior. We are constantly being influenced by things that we don’t recognize have had an influence, and which are sometimes embarrassing to know. That isn’t why we’re unaware of them. We’re unaware of them because we don’t have access to our cognitive process. We claim that we do. You ask me why I do something, I’ll give you an answer, although you’ll probably believe it more than I will because I’m so aware of the extent to which we’re unaware of what goes on.

I’ll give an example of the experiment we did. We have two experiments, and in the first experiment—a learning experimen —people memorize word pairs. There might be a pair like “ocean-moon” for some subjects. Then we’re through with that experiment: “Thank you very much.” The other fellow has this other experiment—on free association, where you are to give an example of something in a category we give you. So, one of the categories we give is, “Name a laundry detergent.” People are much more likely to mention Tide, if they’ve seen that ocean-moon pair. You ask them, “Why did you come up with that? Why did you say Tide?” “Well, that’s what my mother uses,” or “I like the Tide box.” And you say, “Do you remember learning that word pair—ocean-moon?” “Oh, yeah.” “Do you suppose that could’ve had an influence?” “No. I don’t think so.”‘.

This means if we’re largely and often unaware of what we’re unaware of, deliberation can only do so much to improve brain health. Of course, on the other side of the coin are practitioners of techniques such as Transcendental Meditation and other types of mindfulness meditation such as Matthieu Ricard who would disagree. Perhaps they have a point, that with training we can improve our awareness of the sub-conscious. At least one pilot study shows that an 8-week meditation course improved circulating anti-influenza vaccine antibody titers even when tested 4 months later. At that point volunteers were doing only 15-minute meditation sessions just 2 or 3 times a week (6), and yet it made a difference.


1. You Can Train Your Body Into Thinking It’s Had Medicine. Jo Marchant, Mosaic Science, 9 Feb, 2016. You can train your body into thinking it’s had medicine

2. Ader, Robert, and Nicholas Cohen. “Behaviorally conditioned immunosuppression.” Psychosomatic Medicine 37.4 (1975): 333-340. http://gc.nesda.com.br/Conteudo/…

3. Borovikova, Lyudmila V., et al. “Vagus nerve stimulation attenuates the systemic inflammatory response to endotoxin.” Nature 405.6785 (2000): 458-462. http://projects.mindtel.com/vade…

4. Benedetti, Fabrizio. “The placebo response: science versus ethics and the vulnerability of the patient.” World Psychiatry 11.2 (2012): 70-72. http://www.psychiatrie.cz/images…

5. The Crusade Against Multiple Regression Analysis. A Conversation With Richard Nisbett. Jan 21, 2016. The Crusade Against Multiple Regression Analysis

6. Davidson, Richard J., et al. “Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation.” Psychosomatic medicine 65.4 (2003): 564-570. http://gruberpeplab.com/teaching…