Psychoneuroimmunology and the mind’s impact on health

If you are a skier like me, you likely revelled in watching the alpine skiing events during this years’ Olympic Winter Games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Having raced myself when I was younger, I recall the feeling of being in the starting gate with all the anticipation and excitement it brings. But my memories are more than mere recollections of “images” in my head, for I also have vivid muscle memory, and when watching and cheering for Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety, I can literally feel my leg muscles contract as if I were on the course myself. Because I skied for so much of my life, my experience now as a spectator brings me back to the hardwired responses that I can call up even to this day in a very intuitive way simply by visualizing a course.

Researchers at Stanford have now corroborated what athletes and psychologists have long believed: that visualizing ourselves performing a task, such as skiing down a race course, or engaged in other routines, improves our performance and increases our success rate. The findings, reported by neuroscientists in Neuron, suggest that mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Using a new tool called a brain-machine interface, the researchers have shown how mental learning translates into physical performance and offers a potentially new way to study and understand the mind.

Could this new tool assist us in replicating cognitive responses to real-world settings in a controlled environment? More studies will need to be carried out in order to further test these findings and better understand the results. And one potential point to take into account is that preforming a real action is different than performing the same task mentally via a brain-imaging interface given that one’s muscles, skeletal system, and nervous system are all working in tandem; but, a brain-imaging interface would indeed seem to have very practical implications for those who use prosthetics or are who are paralyzed. As our knowledge of biomechanics and neuroscience advances, as well as our capabilities to interface the two, we may be able to utilize this technology to assist us in creating more life-like prosthetics and perhaps, harnessing the mind’s inborn processes and complex synapses, help others walk again.

Looking toward the future, another interesting subject of research would be to use a brain-imaging interface to study psychoneuroimmunology. We may not have the technology or ability to conduct such a study at the moment, but it seems plausible that in the near future we could develop the tools needed to conduct more rigorous research on the interactions between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems. If visualizing winning a ski race improves our performance, why not also envisioning good health outcomes: resilient bodies, strong immune systems, plentiful and efficient white blood cells. Simply willing ourselves to health might not be possible, but, to be sure, having a positive outlook has been shown to impact the outcome of disease, while conversely, increased levels of fear and distress before surgery have been associated with worse outcomes. These are but a few examples of the increasing evidence of the mind’s impact on health. It highlights the importance of recognizing a holistic approach that considers the roles of behavior, mood, thought, and psychology in bodily homeostasis. Read More

The Testosterone Rule Strikes Again – New Policy to Address Transgender Athletes

New Guidelines issued by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) offer a new policy for the participation of transgender athletes in sports competitions. According to the new policy, transgender athletes should be given the option to compete without having to undergo genital re-construction surgery. Female to Male (F-M) transgender athletes will be allowed to compete without further limitations, however Male to Female (M-F) transgender athletes would be allowed to compete only after receiving hormonal treatment intended to keep testosterone levels under a fixed threshold for at least a year before the competition. This is a significant change to the previous guidelines, which recommended that transgender athletes be eligible to compete only after a genital re-construction surgery and two years of hormonal therapy. The committee explained that the change of policy was due to “current scientific, social and legal attitudes on transgender issues”. The overriding objective of all policies according to the IOC was ‘fair competition’, so whereas genital appearance was not considered to affect fairness, testosterone levels are still understood to generate a competitive edge.

Read More

The Testosterone Rule

Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete that has been in the focus of a recent drama in elite sport. Chand, a gifted athlete and champion, was suspended from participating in competitions by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), after she was found to have high levels of testosterone. A biological condition called “hyperandrogenism” caused Chand to have three times more testosterone than an average woman athlete, similar to that of men. Chand was given the unappealing alternative of undergoing surgery and hormonal treatments meant to “normalize” her so she could race again, or turning to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), she chose the latter.

One would think that in a world in which men and women’s sports are so profoundly separated, distinguishing between male and female athletes would be a no-brainer.  Well, it’s not like that at all. Chand’s case can be traced along a history of similar episodes in which female athletes (like South African runner Caster Semanya and others) were suspected for not being “true females,” having to undergo medical scrutiny in order to conclude on the matter. This ambiguity is not special to athletes. It even has a name – “intersex,” an umbrella term describing a range of conditions in which the person’s sex cannot be conclusively determined. To read more on intersex variations click here.

Read More

Asking the Right Question about Football

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at HealthLawProf Blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com.]

In his New York Times op-ed today, former Denver tight end Nate Jackson explains why the NFL should prefer that its players use marijuana to medicate their pain rather than to rely on prescription drugs that can have serious side effects and promote dangerous addictions. Jackson explains quite effectively why he needed marijuana during his six-year career:

I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc. Most players have similar medical charts. And every one of them needs the medicine.

But to ask whether players should use marijuana or legal drugs to treat their pain is to ask the wrong question. As I write in a forthcoming symposium on concussion in sports in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Read More

Professional Athletes and Personal Responsibility for Health

[Disclaimer: I am not involved in this, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.]

Concussions and Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) have been the dominant subject of concern in the sports world recently, and for good reason, but I would like to highlight an often overlooked and more general problem.  Our athletes are rewarded for pushing their bodies to the brink to accomplish majestic feats, requiring physical perfection.  We laud playing through injuries to succeed at the pinnacle of sport, or recovering from injuries at super human speeds, only to return those bodies to the brutal punishment of competition.[1]  With these pressures, Concussions and PEDs can be viewed as mere symptoms of a culture that runs from the fans to the teams to the players themselves, asking them to sacrifice their bodies, sometimes, to the detriment of their long-term health.  In this new age of awareness about player health, we should be asking: Are athletes making properly informed rational choices about their health?  Or are there situations where neither the players nor their teams are properly incentivized to protect long-term player health due to the culture described above?

Some recent stories have exemplified the culture:

Read More