Since ancient times, our popular songs and stories have told how sorrow and grief can die from our broken hearts. Now, scientists say they’ve discovered the powerful physical connection between our mind and body that actually causes such damage.
And the good news is that by understanding how our emotions prompt our brains to physically affect our bodies, scientists think they can develop revolutionary new ways to treat serious conditions like chronic pain and cancer.
Doctors have long known that trauma can damage our hearts. At its most extreme, in a condition called broken-heart syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, stressful events cause a person’s heart muscle to suddenly weaken, which can be fatal.
According to a new study by researchers in Sweden, who studied the health records of more than two million parents, grief and loss can also cause harm that is more damaging if less immediately catastrophic.
It found that those who lost a baby more than doubled their risk of developing atrial fibrillation — where the heart beats irregularly and significantly increases the risk of stroke — the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reported in March.
Now, scientists say they have discovered the powerful physical link between our mind and body that actually causes such damage
Dr Dang Wei, an epidemiologist who led the study at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, told Good Health: ‘A broken heart breaks hearts. People who lost a close family member had a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, heart disease, heart attack, stroke and heart failure.’
But how are emotions and hearts so closely connected?
In Israel, Hedva Haikin, an immunology researcher at the Heifer Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is investigating the role of a brain region associated with positive emotions and motivation, called the ventral tegmental area (VTA).
His post-mortem research on rats showed that when their VTA was electronically stimulated they suffered far less scarring from heart attacks – ‘with only scarring of the damage’, the journal Nature reported in February.
Activating the brain’s positive-emotion VTA center causes immune changes that help reduce damaged scar tissue, he says. Now he and his colleagues are investigating how this happens, so that doctors can harness this positive power of the mind.
Meanwhile, other studies are uncovering important clues as to how the VTA plays an important role in other serious disorders, particularly chronic pain.
In 2020, a study led by Professor Gerald Zamponi – a neurobiologist at the University of Calgary in Canada – showed that VTA stimulation alleviated chronic pain in paralyzed rats.
This prompts the VTA to send the powerful reward chemical dopamine to the pain-producing area of our brain (the medial prefrontal cortex), Professor Zamponi writes in the journal Cell Reports.
In chronic pain, it is believed that this cortex can become ‘stuck’, creating a heightened sense of pain. But Professor Zamponi says his research has shown that when the VTA sends dopamine to the cortex, it reduces its activity and reduces pain sensations.
He believes that positive motivation can stimulate the VTA to transmit dopamine: ‘In humans, neuronal activity in the VTA is compromised under conditions of chronic pain’. He suggests that encouraging people with chronic pain to stimulate their VTAs by increasing their levels of positivity may reduce their symptoms.
Break-ups can cause temporary physical problems, such as hair loss or skin conditions like rosacea, experts say
This may sound like a miracle alternative. But this is not at odds with what the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends.
Two years ago, NICE ordered that drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, benzodiazepines or opioids should no longer be given as first-line treatment for chronic pain because ‘there is no evidence that they make a difference to pain. can harm’. Instead, it recommends two psychological approaches – cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Both aim to help patients replace negative thoughts with positive ways of shaping their lives and futures.
Hedva Haykin says that while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who think positively seem to survive diseases better, being able to identify a pathway through which such an effect occurs — and show that it works in lab animal experiments — is Makes it much more realistic.
Carmine Parente, professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, welcomed the findings of such research. ‘All these developments are exciting because we are now understanding the molecular pathways involved at the microscopic level,’ he said.
He added: ‘The idea that there is communication between the brain and the immune system is something we’ve known for 50 years. However, when we suggest that physical health is due to something happening in the brain, people hear that it is acting ‘on the mind’ – and they assume that they are being told that their physical problems are only ‘in the mind’.
‘The more we can emphasize that the brain and body communicate through biological processes, then we can show that it’s not dismissing things as ‘all in the mind’ and we can treat patients more effectively by dealing with psychology. Physiology of Disease.’
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