Mind Over Matter? Mapping the Two-Way Street of the Brain and Immune System
September 1, 2016

In two recent research papers, Center Scientist Melissa Rosenkranz and colleagues studied the mind-body relationship in efforts to help understand how inflammatory responses are influenced by the brain and explore how existing interventions such as mindfulness meditation may be successful ways to manage inflammation and the expression of disease.

In one study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, the group compared people with asthma that had high versus low levels of chronic stress. Both groups were exposed to an acute stressor. During exposure to the stressor, the increase in activity in the mid-insula – a part of the brain involved in bi-directional influence with the state of the body – was associated with greater stress reactivity and predicted subsequent airway inflammation after the stressor. The findings provide support for the idea that psychological stressors result in detrimental outcomes in inflammatory disease expression, particularly in people experiencing chronic life stress.

In another study, Rosenkranz and scientists measured inflammatory responses in experienced meditators and people with no or little meditation experience. By examining participants’ responses to an acute stressor through their levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – in saliva samples and inflammatory response to a topical capsaicin cream, the team found that experienced meditators showed lower reactivity, suggesting that meditation practices may be helpful in mitigating inflammatory responses brought about by psychological stress.

With roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population living with asthma, and inflammation being a contributor to many other chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, Rosenkranz says the findings are important in challenging the medical community to look beyond pharmaceutical approaches to address these physical manifestations of disease and to also consider strategies that harness the influence of the mind on the body.

Marianne Spoon