Psychosomatic health

I can’t qualify posts like this enough; they are zeroth order thoughts that are more like armchair musings than they are even close to anything scientific.

Fairly often I come across a science news article about some study that correlates behavioral/mental health with some kind of somatic manifestation. There’s a term that many bandy around, “psychosomatic,” often used superciliously to indicate that one’s pains are somehow made up in one’s mind. However, pain is a very personal, neurological experience that makes objectivity difficult to assess. A recent headline I saw posits a link between loneliness in women and a higher incidence of breast cancer. To assume without qualification, for a moment, that there is a mechanism behind this observation, I was thinking about what that might be. The intuitive reaction is often to assume that it may be through inaction that the brain/body might not fight aggressive cancer cell growth if the loneliness is associated with less than optimal brain function (as is easy to imagine). However, what happens when we think about this in the opposite way? What if the mechanism of action is similar to programmed organism death? What if, in detecting a sub-optimal neurological state, the brain actively contributes to a condition that makes it susceptible to a parasitic toxin such as cancer cells?

This is all firmly in the domain of a gedanken experiment at the moment, but I bet there is some research that investigates several of these issues and potentially how they might work together to understand this. To extend these vagaries further, understanding may lead to effective treatment that could be as simple as “being social” or “making oneself happy.” Mechanism unknown, perhaps, these kinds of simple things may have far greater ramifications for our psychosomatic health (in the non-pejorative way).

Update: the original article will be published in a journal called Cancer Prevention Research.

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3 thoughts on “Psychosomatic health

  1. shotgunfacelift

    You mentioned a headline but didn’t mention where you read it so I can’t comment fully, but I would take anything outside a respected medical journal with a particularly large pinch of salt.

    If it was in a Medical journal, what was their study based on?

    As far as breast cancer and depression go, I’m finding them very hard to link. It’s the same as that ‘link’ between duodenal ulcers and stress, although that being true is probably more likely.

    Could be many things, suboptimal brain function, I suppose cortisol levels would be affected (but has no correlation to cancer or ulcers). Strange.

  2. sc Post author

    The study will be published in Cancer Prevention Research, about which I know nothing, since it is not my field. From the headline, I had not realized that the study authors used a mouse model of human breast cancer to investigate the isolation. The discussion section has implications for how this might be applicable to humans, and they present their case there.

    While I don’t claim to have read the article (not even the one contained therein), it’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard of such a link between social isolation and some kind of physical manifestation. However, I should point out that it’s my failing for not having read even the summary/preview article that should mention that it’s a mouse study and not a human study. It reminds me as always that science news reporting, especially headlines, are susceptible to exactly this kind of sensationalism. I admit, I bit!

  3. shotgunfacelift

    Hm, even a mouse model would be convincing enough. I’d be more interested in the sample size, and testing methods. How did they extrapolate the results to loneliness and women, and so on.

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