Tampa, FL (Sept. 9, 2008) -- Are you sick because you're depressed, or are you depressed because you're sick? The short answer is yes.
For more than 25 years researchers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, have been accumulating evidence showing that what you think and feel may alter your immune system. Relatively recently researchers have also begun documenting the flip side that the immune system gone awry may profoundly impact the inner workings of your brain, leading to significant behavioral and health consequences.
Some of the nation's leading experts in psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, will gather Sept. 18 to 21 when the University of South Florida College of Nursing hosts a national conference, Frontiers in Psychoneuroimmunology: The Emotional Interface, at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, FL. They will share emerging research linking emotions with health and immunity, the connections between emotions and cancer progression, the immune system's involvement in diseases such as fibromyalgia, depression and metabolic syndrome, the potential of stress and fatigue to hurt the body's ability to fight infection, and the global health implications of mind-body research. The conference will include a preconference training program in meditation/stress reduction and roundtable discussions with opportunities for health professionals in attendance to ask questions.
PNI has evolved with advances in technology, which now allows scientists to more precisely measure inflammatory chemicals such as cytokines and stress hormones like cortisol, as well as tap into sophisticated imaging techniques that map out metabolic changes in parts of the brain controlling emotions.
"One of the biggest challenges is interpreting the results of mind-body interactions and transforming them into clinical outcomes that will benefit our patients and clients. We are dealing with an extraordinarily complex system and we don't yet understand all that we need to consider." said Nick Hall, PhD, director of the USF College of Nursing Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, one of few PNI research centers in the country housed within a nursing school. "But this conference will bring together the country's top PNI experts in one spot to answer tough questions. Many of the speakers are funded by the National Institutes of Health, and we all share a passion for scientific validity."
PNI is a wide-ranging field studying the relationships among the mind (psyche), the brain (neuro) and the immune system (immunology) and what all that has to do with your health and susceptibility to disease. "In the early days when the term 'psychoneuroimmunology' was coined, the bias was that the brain controls everything that information flows in the direction of gravity, from the nervous system down to the rest of the body," Dr. Hall said.
When researchers found that depressed people were more prone to infections, they assumed the brain must be triggering a stress hormone to tamp down the immune system. But, Dr. Hall said, the evolutionary advantage for suppressing the immune function of a depressed person with slowed reflexes -- already lacking energy and motivation was questionable. Making the depressed individual more susceptible to viruses and bacteria didn't seem to make sense. Scientists eventually suspected that symptoms of depression may sometimes be triggered by the immune system sending the body a message to slow down so it can rest and restore energy, he added. But, what would happen if that message didn't get turned off?
"We now know that some forms of depression may actually be triggered by too much immunity, rather than weakened immunity," Dr. Hall said. "Something happens to make the immune system keep going on and on, without any restraints, rather like the Energizer Bunny."
The USF conference's keynote speaker is Peter Bourne, MD, a former health advisor to President Jimmy Carter, whose frontline studies on the psychological and physiological aspects of combat stress during the Vietnam War are considered classics in the field of psychoendocrinology. Other top scholars will include Lydia Temoshok, PhD, of the University of Maryland, author of the book The Type C Connection: Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health, and Ronald Glaser, PhD, a pioneer in studies linking stress and infection.
Dr. Hall's research probing the interrelationships between emotions and health has been featured on "Nova" and the Emmy-Award winning television series "Healing and the Mind" produced by Bill Moyers for PBS. He will speak about his previous work at USF and Arizona State University, which indicated that the body chemistry of theatre actors was impacted by the emotions they experienced while performing in a controlled setting. While more study is needed, Hall said, eventually role playing exercises intended to create physiological changes might help patients with chronic illnesses like cancer and AIDS.
Initial skepticism among scientists about the link between emotions and physical health has been greatly muted by mounting evidence from animal and human studies showing that the brain communicates with the immune system and vice versa, said conference speaker Margaret Kemeny, PhD, director of Health Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. Kemeny's own research is looking for ways to bridge the science of emotions and meditation with the aim of developing interventions that can influence emotion regulation, biology and health. "We want to determine whether we can modify biological systems by helping people to become aware of and alter their emotional reactions and that's still an open question," she said. "I'd venture to say not one of us in this field thinks psychological interventions should be the sole treatment for any disease. But we are excited about the prospect of developing interventions based on PNI findings that might not only supplement standard high-quality medical care, but synergize with treatment benefits."
Dr. Hall emphasizes that there is too much uncertainty to draw a direct cause and effect line between emotions, or personality, and disease. "Getting any illness is like playing the lottery. You've got to have all the numbers lined up to get the disease," he said. "One of those numbers is your genetic blueprint, but genes only determine probability, not causality. There has to be something to activate or deactivate genes. It could be a behavioral factor like how you cope with stress or your social support system. It could be any number of environmental factors that can impact biology nutrition, how much you exercise, how much sleep you get, how much caffeine or alcohol you pour into your body, whether you take drugs."
While no one is to blame for their health consequences, everyone can learn how to take a more active role in preventing illness, improving quality of life and take advantage of therapies that may allow traditional medical treatments to work better, Dr. Hall said.
"There are scientifically based things you can do, like mindfulness meditation, stress management or reframing exercises, that can make a significant difference in promoting your overall health in ways you may have never imagined."
|Contact: Anne DeLotto Baier|
University of South Florida Health