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No. 35: Sep-Oct 1984

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The Immune System As A Sensory Organ

John Maddox, the editor of Nature, has written a remarkable editorial on psychoimmunology; that is, the science of the brain's effects on the body's immune system. It is basically a running commentary on new discoveries that are helping us to understand this poorly appreciated relationship. Maddox begins by mentioning the 20-plus-year collection compiled by Professor G.W. Brown, University of London, of life-events that affect the health of outwardly normal people. Typical life-events are the death of a spouse, imprisonment, personal bankruptcy, etc. Everyone seems to recognize -- if only through anecdotes -- that mental states affect health, but how this brain-body link is maintained is hard to pin down. D. Maclean and S. Reichlin (Psychoneuroimmunology, 12: 475, 1981.) have reviewd some of the possible connections. One potential link is through the interaction of the hypothalamus on the pituitary. The pituitary is a source of materials that influence the immune system. Maddox lists several specific candidates, and then observes:

"The more radical psychoimmunologists talk as if there is no state of mind which is not faithfully reflected by a state of the immune system."

So far, not too radical! But then Maddox comes to an article by J.E. Blalock, University of Texas (Journal of Immunology, 132:1067, 1984.) bearing the title, "The Immune System as a Sensory Organ." Blalock argues that the interaction between the central nervous system and immune system must be reciprocal. By this he means that the immune system's response to infection, through the secretions of disease-fighting lymphocytes, gets back to the central nervous system and produces physiological and even behavioral changes in the infected animal.

Applicable studies of animals have been reported recently. For example, rats under stress are found to have less easily stimulated immune systems. (Science, 221:568, 1983.) Also, men who have recently lost their wives to breast cancer have immune systems less responsive to mitogens. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 250:374, 1984.)

(Maddox, John; "Psychoimmunology Before Its Time," Nature, 309:400, 1984.)

Comment. This is an appropriate time to suggest that "psychoevolution" may be physiologically possible. If the brain can fight disease and even control cell growth, why not a role for the mind in stimulating the development of new spe cies, perhaps in response to extreme environmental pressures, and perhaps not on the conscious level? The body's sensory system would detect great external stresses, the brain would process the information, and direct some astute genetic shuffling. The genetic inheritance of an organism is not sacrosanct. Radiation, chemicals, and various others mutagens are recognized. There seems to be no a priori reason why the brainbody combination cannot generate mutagens -- possibly not randomly but intelligently! (We ignore here selfish DNA and Sheldrake's morphogenic fields.) Does this mean that if we wish to mutate, we can? Well, it's probably not as simple as wishing warts away, but Maddox's editorial underscores the complexity and subtlety of the brain-body combination.

From Science Frontiers #35, SEP-OCT 1984. 1984-2000 William R. Corliss

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