Friday, December 14, 2007

Leveraging the placebo effect

Bruce Lipton ( is an interesting scholar, and his book, The Biology of Beliefis worth reading. He developed his perspective on genetics, biology, and human behavior from his studies of stem cells in the 1970s and 1980s. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that respond to environmental conditions to differentiate into specific, specialized cells like blood cells or muscle cells. Initially, undifferentiated stem cells are identical, but once these cells are exposed to different environments, they respond to environmental stimuli and develop specialized cellular processes and functions. 

From his research on stem cells, Lipton recognized that cells share fractal (self-similar) properties with the human bodies that they build - a human body is composed of trillions of cells! Specifically, he realized that cell membranes are analogous to the human body's nervous system: both systems sense and then initiate responses to environmental stimuli. A cell's membrane features receptor and effector proteins. Receptor proteins sense the environment, and effector proteins initiate cellular responses. These cellular responses allow cells to respond appropriately to current environmental conditions; incorrect responses can lead to cell death. Similarly, our nervous systems sense - via interfaces in our ears, noses, throats, and eyes - environmental stimuli, such as light, sound, and heat. In response, our nervous systems compel us to act in manners appropriate to our environments.

From this foundation, Lipton developed his views on health and disease states in humans. In his research, Lipton found that when he removed receptor and effector proteins from cells' membranes, these cells could not function properly because they could not perceive their environments. Drawing on the fractal, self-similar nature of cells and human bodies, he applied this fact about cellular membranes to human disease processes and concluded that environmental stimuli - stress, love, relationships, abuse, living conditions, nutrition, smog, access, etc. - contribute mightily to people's health - he takes a holistic view of health and well-being. 

From this platform, Lipton wrote The Biology of Belief to communicate the powers that our perceptions of our environments play in determining our health states. For example, Lipton encourages medicine to leverage the placebo effect because it has been shown, time and time again, to improve people's health without the side effects or adverse outcomes of drugs or surgeries. Obviously, the placebo effect cannot cure everything and has limited applications, but it shows that how our minds perceive our environments - our beliefs about ourselves and our relations to our world - have profound effects on our behaviors and well-beings. 

As he develops his ecology, Lipton constantly engages epigenetics - changes in gene function without changes in DNA sequence (i.e. a cell changes how it responds to environmental stimuli by activating its DNA differently; the cell plays a different song with the same set of guitar strings). His discussion of biology, genetics, and human behavior provides all readers with an accessible scientific development of the case that we have the abilities to consciously change our behaviors and health states by shifting how we respond to our environments. In the public health domain, healthcare leaders could apply Lipton's message by emphasizing the importance that environments play in determining people's health states - young children need supportive learning environments to develop their cognitive capacities, for example.

In the end, Lipton shares with his readers the empowering insight that we, as humans endowed by evolution with brains capable of consciousness, are capable of overcoming many of our genetic predispositions through epigenetic mechanisms that we initiate when we reorient our beliefs about and perceptions of our world (Richard Dawkins has made this same argument for many years; see The Selfish Gene). In the context of the paradox of searching versus acting, Lipton's thesis teaches us that our searches can help us act more effectively by improving our responses to environmental stimuli (coping with stress, for instance) - hence the logic (and rigorous science) behind embracing holistic health ecologies. 

If these concepts and ideas interest you, engage your central nervous system and entertain yourself with The Biology of Belief - hopefully, it will have, at a minimum, a placebo effect on how you think about your mind, body, and spirit. 

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