Can our brain make our body sick? Probably yes, Israeli research shows

Can our brain trigger a real disease in the body? New research by scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology conducted in mice suggests that the answer is likely yes.

Over the years, the intuitive idea that the brain has a significant influence on people’s physical well-being has been supported by growing scientific evidence.

“Several years ago, we studied the mechanism behind the placebo effect, showing that when people experience positive expectation, their conditions improve in many ways,” said Technion professor Asya Rolls.

“We were able to show that by activating areas of the brain that are related to positive expectations, we would boost the immune response,” he added. “What surprised us was how accurate this response was and that is why we think that the brain could not have such an exact control of the system without knowing what its state is.”

Therefore, the researchers began to investigate whether the brain is capable of representing the state of the immune system.

Professor Asya Rolls (credit: OFFICE OF THE NITZAN ZOHAR / TECHNION Spokesperson)

The results of the new study, which was led by Rolls together with his MD / Ph.D student Tamar Koren, and conducted in cooperation with Dr. Kobi Rosenblum from the University of Haifa and Dr. Fahed Hakim from EMMS Hospital in Nazareth , were published in the journal Cell on Monday.

The scientists checked which areas of the brain would be activated when the mice underwent genetically induced inflammation of the colon. Among others, the insular cortex, responsible for sensations such as thirst, hunger and pain and other manifestations of the physiological state of the body, showed greater neurological activity.

“When we reactivate the same neurons later, we register the same inflammatory response,” said Rolls. “It was quite shocking.”

According to experts, the results offer evidence that the brain contains a representation of the immune system and can reactivate it when presented with specific stimuli and possibly other forms of memories.

While the brain will not cause the body to re-infect with a pathogen, it could trigger a reaction in the body similar to that caused by the original infection.

“We have to remember that many times the damage to the body is not caused by the pathogen itself, but by the reaction of the immune system,” said Rolls.

The mechanism can help explain what triggers psychosomatic disorders – health problems that appear without an apparent biological cause.

Autoimmune diseases or other conditions like Crohn’s disease could also be based on a similar process.

Rolls cautioned that it would be wrong to assume that the results obtained from the mouse study will translate into humans in exactly the same way.

However, there is hope that the research can not only help better understand how certain diseases work, but also help treat them, possibly by inhibiting neurons from firing and triggering inflammation.

“There are many ways that we can control neural activities in the human brain; for example, through magnetic or electrical stimulation or through neurofeedback, when a person learns to control their neurons on their own, ”Rolls noted.

“We know we can do it because we know the power of a psychosomatic effect,” he said. “For example, during the clinical trial of the COVID vaccine, many people who received the placebo experienced very similar side effects to those who received the real vaccine. Clearly, this was caused by some mental process that resulted in a physiological response. “

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