The Frontal Cortex

Cages and Cancer

There’s an absolutely fascinating new paper by scientists at Ohio State University in the latest Cell. In short, the paper demonstrates that mice living in an enriched environments – those spaces filled with toys, running wheels and social interactions – are less likely to get tumors, and better able to fight off the tumors if they appear.

The experiment itself was simple. A large group of mice were injected with melanoma cells. After six weeks, the mice living in enriched environments had tumors that were approximately 75 percent smaller than mice raised in standard lab cages. Furthermore, while every mouse in the standard cages developed cancerous growths, 17 percent of the mice in the enriched enclosures showed no sign of cancer at all.

What explains this seemingly miraculous result? Why does having a few toys in a cage help prevent the proliferation of malignant cells? While the story is bound to get more complicated – there nothing is simple about cancer, or brain-body interactions – the researchers present a strikingly straightforward chemical pathway underlying the effect:

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In short, the enriched environments led to increases in BDNF in the hypothalamus. (BDNF is a trophic factor, a class of proteins that support the survival and growth of neurons. What water and sun do for plants, trophic factors do for brain cells.) This, in turn, led to significantly reduced levels of the hormone leptin throughout the body. (Leptin is involved in the regulation of appetite and metabolism, and seemed to be down-regulated by slightly elevated levels of stress hormone.) Although a few earlier studies have linked leptin to accelerated tumor growth, it remains unclear how this happens, or if this link is really causal.

It’s important to not overhype the results of this study. Nobody knows if this data has any relevance for humans. Nevertheless, it’s a startling demonstration of the brain-body loop. While it’s no longer too surprising to learn that chronic stress increases cardiovascular disease, or that actors who win academy awards live much longer than those who don’t, there is something spooky about this new link between nice cages and reduced tumor growth. Cancer, after all, is just stupid cells run amok. It is life at its most mechanical, nothing but a genetic mistake. And yet, the presence of toys in a cage can dramatically alter the course of the disease, making it harder for cancerous cells to take root and slowing their growth once they do. A slight chemical tweak in the cortex has ripple effects throughout the flesh.

It strikes me that we need a new metaphor for the interactions of the brain and body. They aren’t simply connected via some pipes and tubes. They are emulsified together, so hopelessly intertwined that everything that happens in one affects the other. Holism is the rule.

Comments

  1. #1 Shelley
    July 9, 2010

    And literature is the best toy of all.

  2. #2 passionlessDrone
    July 9, 2010

    Hi Jonah –

    There are similar findings for a variety of disease states. Here is one regarding an animal model of Alzheimers and rather striking differences in the build up of beta-amyloid between differentially housed rodents.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15766532

    Thanks for the post. Very cool.

    – pD

  3. #3 becca
    July 9, 2010

    Wow. That’s pretty flippin awesome. I wonder what would happen if you did this study combined with one on diet. I know a ‘Western/cafeteria’ diet (i.e. actually giving the mice twinkies) can up rates of colon cancer dramatically. So boring environment + lousy diet -> cancer. But could the enriched environment compensate for the lousy diet or vice versa?

    I also wonder a little about the ethical issue this raises. Poor mices in unenriched environments. It obviously makes some kind of difference. Though the authors describe it as low level stress. Aghh. Cognition is so confusing.

    Also, I think it’s important to note that this is probably mediated by a soluble serum factor (i.e. if you take serum from enriched environment mice it can inhibit in vitro cancer growth) and it’s BDNF dependent inasmuch as BDNF knockout mice can’t make whatever the factor is. But it can’t be solely a cell mediated (e.g. immune cell) phenomenon if the serum can have an anticancer activity.

  4. #4 brittany
    July 9, 2010

    I wonder if all of the “enriched” cages had wheels. Is the difference not only toys but exercise?

  5. #5 ted
    July 9, 2010

    Fascinating post, I’ll have to read the paper!

  6. #6 Filipe
    July 10, 2010

    Just a few words of appreciation: I recently bought your book ‘Proust was a neurocientist’. To be fair, the cover draw my attention. I’m having a great time reading it, so my sincere congrats!(I’m Portuguese, like Damasio)

  7. #7 Ryan Sittler
    July 10, 2010

    *”THE” Ohio State University ;)*

  8. #8 Julie F.
    July 10, 2010

    ”Holism is the rule”- yes! Neuroscience is allowing Western medicine to prove what Eastern medicine has known for thousands of years. Thanks for the post.

  9. #9 guy
    July 10, 2010

    I think John Muir said it well “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

  10. #10 Galwayskeptic
    July 10, 2010

    @Julie F… Would you care to specify out of the findings/discussion of this experiment what it is exactly ‘Eastern medicine’ has known for ‘thousands of years.’ While you’re at it, could you please define ‘Eastern medicine’ and how it differs from ‘Western medicine.’ As far as I am aware, there is only one kind of medicine; medicine that works. Anything without a strong, scientific, evidence base is not medicine and does not -in any way significantly differentiable from placebo- work. By holism, I assume -and am of course open to correction- that Jonah Lehrer is advocating a multi-disciplinary approach between the different scientific disciplines. Here, for instance, I see psychological theories of health being supported by observed neuroscientific and physiological evidence. By ‘Eastern medicine’ I fear you may be describing so-called ‘alternative medicine’, which is not supported in any way I can discern in this article. I’d be interested to read a clarification of your first comment.

  11. #11 Milt
    July 10, 2010

    What is so interesting about the study is that Western Science as represented by these scientists are actually studying anything that doesn’t require medicine to help. Oh wait, they have been studying the effect of exercise for a long time, and the effect of diet but toys?? Radical indeed.

  12. #12 Candice
    July 13, 2010

    come now, that didn’t just strike you, Molecules of Emotion by Candice Pert…the body is the subconscious mind

    @Galway …’Eastern Medicine’ is that medicine that has not been supported by ethnocentric Western research

  13. #13 Candice
    July 13, 2010

    BTW, I wonder what the health effects are on experimenters that have to give hundreds of mice cancer are

  14. #14 Mary M. Smith D.O.
    July 14, 2010

    What about physical education and games in schools? Have we been short changing our kids by reducing time and money for exercise/games? Should we honor the mind-body connection of our public school students. Private schools certainly do this.

  15. #15 meryl
    July 18, 2010

    This is a splendid explanation to my husband on why there is no limit to the jewelry that I need to have in my life. Toys toys toys – jewelry jewelry jewelry!!!

    Little I know, “eastern therapy” centres its basis of diagnosis on the concept of “qi” (AKA the breath), and stress on the management of Yin versus Yang aspects of the entire person -i.e. psychology, physiology, etc all inclusive. Namely, cancer has yang and yin strains. Treatments would be different for a “yin cancer” vrsus a “yang cancer”. Natural edible ingredients are prescribed.

    The idea is to seek a balance of the qi flow in a person, to sustain an equilibrium state. When a person is sick, the qi is either stuck, or it is in imbalance (too much of yin or too much of yang).

    One example-Sore Throat. It’s considered generally as “heaty” i.e. too much yang qi, so usually one should drink lots of “cooling stuff”, like carrot juice, water, etc. (For me, I just use a truckload of mouthwash lol)

    Of course, my American husband will say this is coconut theory.

    *Enjoy enjoy*

  16. #16 Galwayskeptic
    July 19, 2010

    Why wonder Candice? Nobody is keeping this information from you. :-) There is no shortage of databases for locating scientific research and you can find very detailed methodologies exactly as to how they infect the mice.

    Why don’t you tell me why it is that ‘Western research’ does not validate your ‘Eastern medicine’?

    Also, if you have the time, I would be very interested to hear about Eastern medicine’s contribution to some/any of the following: decreased infant mortality, longer lifespan and eradication of diseases such as polio and small pox. These are just a few of the things that have been made possible by scientific (western?) research.

    Surely you must concede that these were advances made by science-based medicine?

  17. #17 Gretchen
    July 19, 2010

    Setting aside for a moment the “eastern” and “western” tags, it’s clear that there are questions that science can be ill-equipped to address, let alone to answer, whether this is an effect of specific historical contingencies or of limits built into its methods. Empiricism sets constraints which are sometimes wonderfully productive, but they are constraints nonetheless. Until technology quite recently introduced a little light into the “black box” of living brains/minds, science could say very little about subjective phenomena like emotion, imagination, etc, and it’s still limited to the most rudimentary descriptions. Thus the study of health in the broadest sense (one that includes interior states and subjective well-being) has been left primarily to those who embrace extra-scientific modes of inquiry.

    One of the things I found most illuminating and helpful in your book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah, was your appreciation for the ways that science and art may entangle with and inspire each other without necessarily achieving any ultimate reconciliation. Your brand of interdisciplinary investigation seems to me the most fruitful, as it acknowledges that disciplines are bounded by literal and conceptual vocabularies, and these bounds are often paradoxically the source of their respective strengths.

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