IN THE MID-1970s, on his way to learn something else, Robert Ader made a startling discovery.
The University of Rochester psychologist was doing a Pavlovian kind of conditioning experiment with rats. Like Pavlov, who taught dogs to salivate simply by ringing a bell, Ader was trying to condition his rats to hate saccharin-flavored water. To do that, after he gave the rats the sweet water, he would inject them with a drug that made them nauseated. Later he would give them just the sweet water, without the drug, and the rats would become nauseated anyway.Ader's problem was that many of his rats started dying, which baffled him because the rats were young, healthy and well-fed. And then Ader figured out what was happening: The drug used to make them nauseated also suppressed their immune systems, and when the rats tasted the water - even when it contained none of the immunosuppressant drug - their immune systems would function poorly. So poorly that they died.
In essence, the rats had thought themselves to death.
This notion was unsettling to traditional scientists, who had always assumed that the immune system was impervious to the wiles of the nervous system. But in the past 15 years there has been more and more evidence to support the notion that these two body systems - and a third, the endocrine system - carry on a continuous dialogue.
Even more startling in its implications, however, is the work of N. Herbert Spector, a neurophysiologist at the National Institutes of Health. What Spector seems to have proved, with his work on mice, is that we may be able to actually enhance our own immune systems through conditioning.
There may come a time, if Spector's research pans out, when cancer patients will be able to train their bodies to shrink tumors.
Spector calls it neuroimmunomodulation - a mouthful that not only implies that the mind and the immune system are linked, but that the mind can make the body well.
"My long-term ambition," he says, "is to use the wisdom of the body. Instead of using drugs, we can use our body's own defenses."
In his experiments with mice, conducted over the past six years, Spector and his colleagues exposed the animals to the smell of camphor and injected them with a chemical called poly I:C, which is known for its ability to enhance the activity of the body's natural "killer cells."
After nine sessions in which they were both exposed to the camphor and injected with the drug, the mice were then just exposed to the camphor. Despite the fact that they were not injected with the immune enhancer, their bodies showed a large increase in natural killer cell activity.
In fact the animals that had been conditioned to the odor had 30 times as much killer cell activity as a control group of mice that had been exposed to the odor but not injected with the poly I:C.
In a phone interview this week, Spector said he hopes to begin human experiments within the next year. He will have to find an odor that people aren't exposed to in their daily lives - but not camphor, he said, because 30 percent of the population can't smell camphor. Or, like other researchers, Spector and his team could use an unusual sound or a touch.
They will then pair that stimulus with an injection of a chemical that mimics the action of a virus - not causing the subject to become ill but causing his natural killer cells to become active.
Although Spector is considered the father of neuroimmunomodulation, he says that's a bit of an exaggeration. The first experiments on conditioning the immune system were done in Russia in 1891. "I'm not quite that old," says the 71-year-old Spector.
The Russians continued to do experiments in the 1920s at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and in the 1950s and 1960s in Leningrad. But they received little notice until Ader and the Rochester group began doing their experiments in the 1970s.
Recently, Spector has injected mice with cancer cells and has discovered that the mice that had been conditioned with camphor to enhance their immune systems lived longer that those that had not been conditioned.
"In some cases the cancer was totally reversed," he says.
Based on his work with mice, Spector hopes that someday cancer patients might be able to use a smell or a taste or a sound to condition their immune systems to fight back. Sometimes chemotherapy is as bad as the disease itself, notes Spector. Conditioning might mean that patients could get by with smaller doses of drugs.
Or, he says, patients may be able to condition themselves with such techniques as meditation, relaxation and biofeedback - not only to heal themselves once they are sick but, more importantly, to keep themselves well in the first place.
Friday session on healing
Neuroimmunomodulation researcher N. Herbert Spector will speak about "The Art and Science of Health and Healing" Friday, Oct. 26, at the Graduate School of Social Work auditorium on the University of Utah campus.
Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. talk are $5. The presentation is sponsored by the Mind Body Task Force at LDS, Alta View and Cottonwood hospitals, the LDS Foundation, IHC Psychiatric and Behavorial Health Services and the University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work.
For more information, contact the Mind Body Task Force at 321-1021.