New research in mice shows triggering positivity could one day treat cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Chase Purdy


Scientists working on ways to combat dangerous cancers are exploring a treatment path that may wind up being as simple as feeling happy thoughts.

Right now it’s only being tested on mice, but a new study adds to a growing body of research that suggests we might one day be able to treat cancer by triggering a primary reward region in the brain.

The most recent research to be published comes out of Israel. Scientists at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology in Haifa, show in the journal Nature Communications how they managed to shrink cancerous tumors in lab rats by manipulating what’s called the ventral tegmental area of their brains. In humans, a complex neural network within that region controls positive emotions, expectations, and motivation.

Once that neural switchboard is activated—in this case with a drug called clozapine N-oxide—the researchers say it boosts antibacterial immunity. Specifically, dopamine neurons are dispatched to disable suppressor cells that are created in bone marrow. Those cells typically stimulate tumor growth. By disabling them, the body is able to keep tumor growth under control, and even work to shrink them.

The researchers worked with two sets of mice. In both groups, the mice were implanted with cancer cells. In one, the scientists triggered the emotional regions of the mice brains. For the second, they did nothing. According to the study, the first group experienced shrinking tumor sizes, some by as much as half.

The finding is particularly interesting because it further explores an area of research around how emotional states can impact some forms of cancer. Currently, there’s more research showing how negative emotions—depression and stress—make it more difficult for the body to fight cancer. The researchers in Israel noted that it still remains unclear whether this method of treatment might work in humans. The finding in mice certainly gives them a reason to explore it further.