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A new study is focusing on an unexplored avenue of health care: the curative power of greasepaint.

The yearlong investigation of clowns visiting children in hospitals aims to find out if laughter really is the best medicine.The study, to begin within weeks, is believed to be the first to assess "the medical impact of clowns," according to a news release announcing the research.

No joke.

"We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that our work has positive effects, but now the scientists will objectively measure it," Michael Christensen, founder of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, said Wednesday.

The $150,000 study, financed by the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Center for Alternative-Complementary Medicine, will monitor the clowns' regular visits to six metropolitan hospitals.


The 35-member group heads out in its painted faces and size 18-EEE shoes three times a week, 50 weeks a year. The troupe - founded in 1986 - tries to make light of the kids' medical problems, conducting "clown rounds" of all patients and providing red nose transplants and chocolate milk transfusions.

The group works with many seriously ill patients, stopping by intensive care units and AIDS clinics. Clown doctors are selected after intensive auditions and undergo six months of training - not quite medical school, but the closest a clown can get.

For Christensen, the uplifting work has special resonance: His brother died of pancreatic cancer, inspiring him to create the Clown Care Unit. His character, Dr. Stubbs, is a staple of the group.

An actual doctor - Dr. John M. Driscoll Jr. of Babies & Children's Hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center - expects the study to turn up evidence that the clowns do help cure kids.

"When a child begins to laugh, it means he's probably beginning to feel better," Driscoll said. "I see the clowns as healers."

Are there any concerns that people might take this lightly or wonder if the money might be better spent elsewhere?

"Sure," said Big Apple spokesman Brian Worthy.

"People think, `It's clowns.' But we like to think we provide real medical value. People can get so focused on the high technology and drugs, they miss out on the human touch."