What is Psychoneuroimmunology?

By Kathy Jean Schultz

Dr. David Felton, professor of neurobiology and anatomy at New York University Rochester Medical School researches PNI. Despite its forbidding number of syllables, the concept is simple. Scholarship sheds light on the connections between psychology (psych-), the nervous system (neuro-), and the immune system (immunology).

Felton was a PNI pioneer. He ascertained that immune cells and nerve cells are connected. When nerve cells were removed from spleen or lymph cells, the immune responses in those organs stopped. What became obvious was that when nerve cells are taken away, immune cells are gone too. Therefore the nervous and immune systems must be linked.

That linkage has been established by other PNI researchers as well. And it may be essential to the functioning of both. Another PNI investigator was Dr. Candace Pert, the late pharmacologist who published 250 scientific articles about chemical neuroanatomy. Pert was a former chief of brain biochemistry research at the Clinical Neuroscience branch of the U.S. National Institute for Mental Health. Her detective work on the connections between emotions and immune cells is chronicled in her book “Molecules of Emotion.”

Cells communicate with other cells using messengers called peptides. Cells receive constant directions from the brain about whether to divide or not divide, or whether to generate more or fewer proteins. Messenger peptides deliver these directions. Pert identified matching peptides in the brain and in the immune system. Nervous system peptides seek receptors to which they can deliver messages. When they find the receptors they are looking for, the two fit together as snugly as puzzle pieces. What Pert discovered is that nervous system peptides seek out immune cell receptors – because they are a perfect fit.

Relaxation is not something that can be spliced or measured under a microscope. However, electronic brain scans do show that certain cells are flitting about when a person is relaxed, whereas a different group is moving when he or she is sad. Different types of emotional activity trigger physical changes, because the brain regulates the heart, the lungs, digestion – and the immune system.

Thus brain scans confirm what ordinary people have always known: emotions felt during a massage are not the same ones felt during an IRS audit. And both emotions affect health. To say that something “really makes me sick” is a deeper physical truism than is often acknowledged.

Excerpt from Massage Mysteries, by Kathy Jean Schultz, Whole Life Times, © August 1997