Doctoral student Hedva Haykin at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology is researching whether stimulating a brain region involved in positive emotion and motivation can influence how the heart heals after a heart attack. In her experiments with mice that had experienced heart attacks, those that received stimulation of the brain’s reward center, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), showed reduced scar tissue compared to unstimulated mice.
Haykin and her supervisors are investigating the immune changes triggered by VTA activation that contribute to reducing scar tissue. The study builds on decades of research pointing to the link between a person’s psychological state and heart health.
According to a study published in Nature, researchers have discovered that the brain significantly impacts the body’s immune response. They are exploring how this connection can be used to treat various diseases. Asya Rolls, a neuroimmunologist at the Technion, leads the team investigating how the brain directs the immune response and how this connection influences health and disease.
Rolls believes that understanding how mental states impact illness and recovery could enable physicians to tap into the mind’s power over the body. If clinicians can harness the mind-body connection, it could help enhance responses to vaccination, destroy cancers, and re-evaluate illnesses dismissed as being psychologically driven. This field is “exploding” and has broad implications for treating diseases.
The brain has multiple lines of communication with the immune system, with roles in a wide range of diseases, from autoimmunity to cancer. Filip Swirski, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, confirms that this field has experienced significant growth over the past several years. The nervous and immune systems have small local circuits in organs such as the skin and longer-range routes beginning in the brain.
Studies have shown that a person’s psychological state can impact their heart health. A well-known condition called “broken-heart syndrome” can generate the symptoms of a heart attack due to extreme stress, and in rare cases, it can be fatal. Conversely, a positive mindset can improve outcomes in individuals with cardiovascular disease. However, the mechanisms behind these links remain elusive.
Rolls and her team are working to discover precisely how activation of the VTA triggers immune changes that reduce scar tissue. The experiments are ongoing and have yet to be published. However, the results could be game-changing. Clinicians can harness the mind-body connection; they can help patients recover faster, reduce scarring, and even prevent diseases altogether.
The mind-body connection is not new but has long been overlooked in medicine. However, recent studies have demonstrated the potential of harnessing this connection. In one study, researchers found that patients who received more social support had a higher antibody response to the flu vaccine. Another study showed that people who practiced mindfulness meditation had higher antibody levels after receiving a flu vaccine. These studies highlight the potential of the mind-body connection in healthcare.
The brain’s impact on the body’s immune response is an exciting field of research with broad implications for treating diseases. Scientists are mapping out the brain’s control over the immune response, exploring how mental states impact illness and recovery, and discovering how to harness the mind-body connection to help patients recover faster, reduce scarring, and prevent diseases altogether. The field is exploding, and the potential for breakthroughs is enormous.