Rewarding stimulation boosts immune system

Experiment in mice may help explain placebos’ power

Immune cells

TWO TALES  Immune cells taken from mice that had their brains’ reward systems activated (right) killed more E. coli than immune cells taken from control mice (left).   

T.L. Ben-Shaanan et al/Nature Medicine 2016

Feeling good may help the body fight germs, experiments on mice suggest. When activated, nerve cells that help signal reward also boost the mice’s immune systems, scientists report July 4 in Nature Medicine. The study links positive feelings to a supercharged immune system, results that may partially explain the placebo effect.

Scientists artificially dialed up the activity of nerve cells in the ventral tegmental area — a part of the brain thought to help dole out rewarding feelings. This activation had a big effect on the mice’s immune systems, Tamar Ben-Shaanan of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and colleagues found.

A day after the nerve cells in the ventral tegmental area were activated, mice were infected with E. coli bacteria. Later tests revealed that mice with artificially activated nerve cells had less E. coli in their bodies than mice without the nerve cell activation. Certain immune cells seemed to be ramped up, too. Monocytes and macrophages were more powerful E. coli killers after the nerve cell activation.

If a similar effect is found in people, the results may offer a biological explanation for how positive thinking can influence health.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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