Immune system has an on/off switch ‘in the mind’ …?

September 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 2 Comments
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According to this article in the New Scientist (6 September 2012) the “the immune system has an on-off switch controlled by the mind”. On reading the article, one feels that this isn’t actually as daft as it sounds at first. The point is that, “the immune system is costly to run – so costly that a strong and sustained response could dangerously drain an animal’s energy reserves.”

Hmm, does that start to explain the fatigue felt by so many RA patients and dismissed by so many doctors? Given that RA is apparently caused by an  over-active immune system, then surely a strong and sustained over the top response must be pretty fatiguing?

Anyway, back to the article … given that the immune response is energy sapping, the theory is that the immune system will only bother kicking in to fight a mild infection if it feels the reserves it will drain can be re-stocked. Apparently Siberian hamsters will fight a mild infection in the summer, when food supplies are plentiful, but won’t do much to fight it in winter conditions.

This leads to the idea that the mind has an ability to play up/down the immune response depending on whether it feels there is help available … and that leads to an explanation of why the placebo effect works. If you think you’re taking a drug to help fight an infection, say, that makes it worthwhile to put up a fight and bring in the immune system, the theory goes.

The theory has now been supported by some computer modelling, which is all explained in the article but which I won’t go into here.

It leads to some interesting questions, to my mind, about autoimmune diseases.

Being a little flippant here, does this mean that all sufferers of autoimmune diseases are optimists who are so confident that help will always be at hand, that we bring our immune systems in on the flimsiest pretexts?

Is the reason autoimmune diseases seem to have become so much more prevalent in the last few decades (so I’m told) because we’re all generally  pretty healthy (until we’re not) and so the body/mind doesn’t have to question whether there are resources available?

And finally, if there’s an on/off switch in my mind, then why can’t I just turn the damn thing off and get on with life?

TENS machine – works for me!

February 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 4 Comments
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My physio suggested recently that I try a TENS machine – and handily enough I’d sort of inherited one and had it sitting in a cupboard at home, but hadn’t thought to use it for ages. TENS is transcutanious electronic nerve stimulation, delivering very mild electronic stimulae through the skin. It works, to put it simply because I don’t actually understand the non-simple explanations, by blocking the pain receptors somehow, so presumably the brain doesn’t know you’re hurting. Like aspirin, it’s blocking the pain but not curing it. However, unlike aspirin it’s actually causing the body (somehow – something else I don’t understand) to create endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain relievers (among other things). Apparently, according to some, several sessions can relieve chronic pain altogether … according to other studies (which I’m not referencing because I’m tired and I’ve had a long day, but if anyone asks I’ll find ‘em!) it doesn’t work at all. I suppose it depends on the individual – from my point of view, what matters right now is that it works for me, and it’s working right now!

I’ve used it both on my shoulders/neck and my elbows, and I have seen an improvement over the last couple of weeks in both. Mind you, since my flare there’s been a general improvement anyway, and of course I’m also having neck manipulation and ultrasound through physio, but I DO notice almost immediate relief when I start using the TENS now, so I reckon something’s going on, and it’s a good something.

It’s important to remember, as a scientist, that it’s blocking the pain but NOT relieving the underlying condition i.e. it’s not doing anything to stop my immune system from attacking itself. Important to remember as a scientist – perhaps important to try and forget as a patient!

A ‘one injection’ cure for Arthritis within five years … well, let’s hope so!

August 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 4 Comments
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Some great news was widely reported yesterday – there might be a cure for rheumatoid arthritis and it could be tested and available within five years. No disputing it, that is great news! But a word or two of caution …

Unlike a drug, this treatment involves taking cells from a patient’s immune system, altering them in the lab and injection them back in to a joint affected by rheumatoid arthritis. However, not only have there been no human trials yet, there have actually been no trials at all. The only work that’s been done so far is on the cells in the laboratory.

The announcement seems a little premature to me because they don’t even know yet whether the re-injection of the cells will cause the ‘fixed’ immune system cells to spread through the body or not.

The injection is likely to cost in the region of £25,000 according to press reports. The cynic in me wonders whether that’s why it’s being billed as a ‘one injection cure’. Because if all it did was halt the disease in one joint, and most RA patients have many joints affected, the cost would be totally prohibitive and perhaps the research would be stopped. According to the Daily Telegraph : ‘The team also hope to find out if the vaccine is effective only in the joints it is injected into, or whether the new cells spread throughout the body.’ So as yet they really have no idea whether it’s a cure or something to help one badly affected joint. And if it affects one joint for £25,000, the ‘National Institute for Clinical Excellence,’ in the UK, (who are the folks that decide whether medication is too expensive to give to patients, and who are often known as NASTY for obvious acronym reasons) certainly won’t be letting us UK folk have this on the NHS!

The BBC’s report quotes Professor Alan Silman, from the Arthritis Research Campaign, who are a charity I hold in great esteem and who are funding this research, as saying that the cells should be ‘reset’ to normal activity, rather than attacking the joints and that ‘The presumption is that they will stay this way, unless the same trigger which is thought to cause the problem in the first place is encountered again. Aye, there’s the rub!!

Not only is this currently nothing more than a presumption, but more importantly we don’t actually know what the trigger is – or I should probably say what the triggers are, as it’s thought that there are many different triggers. So let’s suppose, as has been suggested in the scientific literature, that one of the many triggers is consumption of decaffeinated coffee. If the cell ‘resetting’ is a success and NASTY decides the treatment will be made available an the NHS, then I toddle off for my injection, it works, I feel fantastic for a day or two (and that’s assuming, of course, that it doesn’t have some horrible side effects) and then I have a nice cup of decaffeinated coffee … if that’s my trigger, Wham – flare up – back to square one? I don’t know, but maybe. There isn’t even a comprehensive list of known triggers, so it’s not possible to even avoid them after the injection!

Then there’s the side effect thing – this is, like the current DMARDS and anti-TNFs, something that affects the immune system, stopping it from attacking the joints in error. Again according to the Telegraph article, and they may have got the wrong end of the stick slightly, or I may have, and I haven’t read any scientific paper on this, ‘Using chemicals, steroids and Vitamin D, the team has devised a way to manipulate a patient’s white blood cells so they suppress, rather than activate, the immune system.’ So …where does the immune system go? Is one cured of RA but suddenly unable to leave a big plastic bubble for fear of getting a common cold and dying from it due to lack of immune system? Probably not, because it’s probably very specific cells they’re targeting, but I’d like to understand this a bit better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that RA, and cures for it, are being thoroughly researched, and even more glad that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. As someone said on the NRAS forum yesterday, hope is a good medicine in itself. I’d just have appreciated some slightly more balanced and less gungho reporting.

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