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?

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