A Matter of Mind over Molecules | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.03.2002
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A Matter of Mind over Molecules

You are what you think - this old adage has never held as true as it does today in the field of medicine, as doctors and scientists train their microscopes on the human mind in hopes of curing the body.


Scientists are still in the dark about how the human body reacts to acupuncture and other alternative treatments

It's a phenomenon that has long baffled scientists.

Why do some medicines without active ingredients made of glucose or other similar substances achieve the same successful treatment results that one gets with "real" medicine?

This is the so-called placebo-effect. The placebo is non-medication or treatment through an inactive substance frequently referred to as the "sugar pill".

For some time now, pharmaceutical researchers have observed that just the act of taking a pill may be enough to make some people feel better.

Psychosomatic element takes centrestage

This psychosomatic aspect was long ignored in the treatment of patients.

But now scientists are discovering that even with placebo medicine, the patient's beliefs and hopes about the treatment combined with their suggestibility may have a significant biochemical effect.

Scientist have proven in experiments involving the placebo effect that the patient's hormonal and immune systems are significantly affected by sensory experience and thought. This explains why placebo treatment often seems to alleviate a patient's pain.

Studies funded by the American National Institute of Health (NIH) have reinforced the notion that it's not the actual medicine that has prompted positive responses in the patient, but just the knowledge that one is receiving a medicine and treatment.

The brain works precisely under placebo effect

So what prompts the effect and what actually takes place in the brain?

That's what researchers and scientists are trying to answer. Numerous studies and clinical trials have proven that the human brain works precisely under the Placebo-effect.

In one experiment, patients who suffered from pain over a large skin area received a supposedly mild cream rubbed on to their hand. The pain faded only in the area where the ineffective cream was spread, although the body's natural pain suppressing hormones could be detected all over.

Talking to the doc helps

Experts have long concluded that a person's hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness.

And that's where the pivotal role played by a doctor comes into play, they say. Speaking to and confiding in a trustworthy doctor and having the doctor explain things helps patients recover faster.

This, experts believe, marks the beginning of neurobiology in the relationship between doctor and patient. In the future, it could have deep consequences for the way doctors attend to their patients.

For instance, those who suffer from Parkinson's disease make remarkable progress after speaking to the doctor about the expected effect from treatments. This does not occur because the patient has imagined it, but because the body actually produces the substance dopamine that Parkinson patients lack.

Another important aspect that comes into play when trying to figure out the relation between mind and body in treating disease is hypnosis.

It has been proved that when a patient under hypnosis is suggested something, the brain shows the exact reaction that one would see if it actually did happen.

Hypnosis has now been accepted as a serious method of medical treatment.

In the field of acupuncture, scientists so far have failed to explain what exactly happens in the body in the field of acupuncture despite clear successes in pain treatment.

Treating mind and body

The American National Institute of Health has initiated some 200 studies to examine alternative or additional holistic methods of treatment.

After all, about 42 percent of Americans turn to alternative healing methods, mostly as an addition to the conventional treatment. Millions of dollars are spent in America yearly on such treatments.

The trend is also catching on in Europe, where thousands of stressed urban residents swarm to wellness centres and ayurveda clinics every year.

Intensive research is now being conducted on herbs and why certain herb mixtures help the body heal.

Teas, massages, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, meditation and prayer - all are being put under the microscope in an attempt to unravel the exact effect that they have on the human body.

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