Researchers have long believed that meditation can soothe both body and mind. One researcher is taking that principle a step farther, suggesting that people can use meditation to actively regulate their immune systems.

In 2002, neuroscientist and immunologist, Kevin J. Tracey, director and chief executive of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the brain and the immune system are linked through the vagus nerve, a large nerve that begins in the brainstem and travels all the way through the torso.

This month, he’s raised the possibility that people may be able to exploit this conduit in order to control their immune systems—at least to some degree—with their minds.

“We can start to ask questions about whether it might be possible to teach people to control this voluntarily,” said Tracey, who spoke about his theory at “Longevity and Optimal Health,” a conference jointly sponsored by the Columbia University Integrative Medicine Program and Tibet House U.S.

The vagus nerve controls the production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a protein that signals the body to mount an inflammatory response. Decreasing vagus nerve activity ups TNF synthesis, whereas increasing vagus nerve activity limits TNF production and therefore inflammation.

Though inflammation can be useful in fighting infection, excessive inflammation can cause disease, such as Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis.

Tracey’s research opened the door to treating inflammatory diseases with drugs or devices that control vagus nerve activity, an approach that has proven successful in animals.

But at the conference, Tracey raised the possibility that vagus nerve activity, and therefore inflammation, could also be controlled mentally.

Meditation has been shown to slow heart rate via signals that travel down the vagus nerve. Those same signals, Tracey speculates, may also dampen immune response, making it possible for people to ease the symptoms of inflammatory diseases through exercises such as meditation and yoga.

Eastern medical practitioners have claimed for thousands of years that meditation can have positive effects on the immune system, said Erin Olivo, a clinical psychologist and director of the Columbia program that co-sponsored the conference.

“But in the West, we can’t simply take that as an answer,” she said.

“In order to begin to empirically validate these theories,” she continued, “you have to use a methodology that the Western scientific tradition respects.”

Further studies of vagus nerve activity in humans will provide more insight into the effectiveness of meditation and other similar techniques for controlling inflammation.

“We haven’t figured out whether these modalities work or not,” Tracey said. “Now we can think about how to answer the question.”

Originally published September 28, 2006


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