As a ground-breaking neuroscientist, Pert’s research helped to create the foundation for an entirely new interdisciplinary branch of science called “Psycho-Neuro-Immunology” or PNI. PNI unites the three classically separated sciences of neuroscience, immunology and endocrinology and their associated glands and organs into a multidirectional communication network, linked by information carrying molecules called (neuro)peptides. Pert provided PNI with a clear scientific language to use, that of peptides and their receptors, also known as “information substances,” thereby helping to legitimize the field. Pert notes that her preferred term was “Psychoimmunoneuroendocrinology” recognizing the inclusion of the endocrine system, but the simpler name of PNI became the accepted term in scientific circles. The more popular name for PNI, soon became “mind-body medicine.”
“Thus, we might refer to the whole system as a psychosomatic information network, linking ‘psyche,’ which comprises all that is of an ostensibly nonmaterial nature, such as mind, emotion and soul, to ‘soma,’ which is the material world of molecules, cells and organs. Mind and body, psyche and soma.”
Dr. Pert’s research provides scientific evidence that a biochemical basis for awareness and consciousness exists, that the mind and body are indeed one and that our emotions and feelings are the bridge that links the two. She explains, “The chemicals that are running our body and our brain are the same chemicals that are involved in emotion. And that says to me that we’d better pay more attention to emotions with respect to health.”
Using Pert’s research as a foundation, we now have a new scientific understanding of the power of our minds and our feelings to directly and profoundly affect our health and well-being. This new science explains that we are one system; the brain is integrated into the body at a molecular level and therefore neither can be treated separately without the other being directly affected. According to Pert, our bodies are in fact our subconscious minds:
“In the end I find I can’t separate brain from body. Consciousness isn’t just in the head. Nor is it a question of the power of the mind over the body…because they’re flip sides of the same thing. Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body.”
Peptides and Receptors: The Molecules of Emotion
What exactly is a molecule of emotion? The first component is the one Pert discovered thirty some years ago that launched her scientific career—the complex molecule known as the receptor, and more specifically—the opiate receptor. She developed a method to measure it and therefore, in a backwards sort of way, prove its existence. This discovery would explain the mechanism by which such opiates as heroin or morphine create their powerful effect on the body, the mind and the emotions. Coincidentally, Pert had a personal experience that had birthed a growing fascination about how these substances caused such a powerful effect on the body, mind and emotions simultaneously.
After a bad fall while horseback riding, she found herself in the hospital, being given a morphine derivative to relieve the pain of a compressed lumbar vertebra. She marveled at the combination of both pain killing effect and the mental and emotional changes induced by the drug. Pert noted the euphoria and blissful altered state she experienced every time she received an injection. She so liked the opiate’s “wonderful feeling of being deeply nourished and satisfied” that she considered continuing on the drug for her pain when she was released from the hospital. Although she eventually decided against that option, her intense physical and emotional experience intrigued her and she wondered about this overlap of physical and emotional effects from a single drug. In this fascination she no doubt had a great deal of company. Many have wondered how such drugs as heroin, marijuana, Librium and cocaine are able to create such intense emotional shifts. This hospital experience would later trigger an interest in proving the existence of the opiate receptor as Pert’s doctoral focus.
How Our Emotions and Thoughts Become Our Physical Body
Receptors sit on the surface of cells and number in the hundreds of thousands on the average cell; specialized cells such as neurons might have millions of receptors surrounding them. These receptors act as tiny scanners and sensors which wait patiently until the exact chemical key comes along that will fit into them, much like a regular key is made to only fit into one specific lock. These chemical keys are called ligands and the most common of these is known as a (neuro)peptide, accounting for nearly 95% of known ligands. Pert describes what happens next as “quite amazing.” The peptide delivers its chemical message to the receptor, which then transmits this message deep within the cell, triggering a chain of biochemical reactions which can create huge changes within the cell—of either a positive or negative nature.
Pert calls the peptides the second component of the molecules of emotion. She offers an analogy:
“If the cell is the engine that drives all life, then the receptors are the buttons on the control panel of that engine, and a specific peptide is the finger that pushes that button and gets things started.”
Pert then asked the logical question: If we all have the opiate receptor present on the cells within our bodies, then must it not follow that our bodies have the ability to make our own endogenous version of morphine? Why else would these receptors already be present on our cells? Within three years she was proved correct when the natural opiate substance manufactured within the body was discovered and eventually became known as an “endorphin,” a shortened version of “endogenous morphine.” The implications in this discovery are profound and suggest that we may in fact have a “natural pharmacopeia” potential already present within us. Perhaps someday we will all be capable of manufacturing our own natural biochemicals at will– in effect orchestrating our own healing. According to Pert, this concept is not as far fetched as it sounds and perhaps not so far off either.
Implications for Disease and Healing: The Power of Unhealed Feelings
Emotions are real—they exist in time and space and are located throughout our minds and bodies. If we accept the concept that peptides and their receptors are the actual biochemicals of emotion, then their presence in the body’s nervous system and nerve cells shows us that the body can be thought of as the unconscious or subconscious mind. Pert explains further:
“As investigations continue, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the role of peptides is not limited to eliciting simple and singular actions from individual cells and organs systems. Rather, peptides serve to weave the body’s organs and systems into a single web that reacts to both internal and external environmental changes with complex, subtly orchestrated responses. Peptides are the sheet music containing the notes, phrases and rhythms that allow the orchestra—your body—to play as an integrated entity. And the music that results is the tone or feeling that you experience subjectively as your emotions.”
Can the kinds and numbers of emotion-linked peptides at receptor sites on our cells influence whether we will stay well or get sick? Pert suggests yes and offers the example of viral illness: “Viruses use these same receptors to enter into a cell, and depending on how much of the . . . natural peptide for that receptor is around, the virus will have an easier or harder time getting into the cell. So our emotional state will affect whether we’ll get sick from the same loading dose of a virus.” This would also explain why some people get much sicker than others from an identical exposure to a virus. Pert considers…. might an elevated mood of happiness, positive expectation or hope offer some protection against a virus? She answers by telling us that she’s never gotten a cold while skiing—a sport she obviously loves.
What does this suggest about the process of developing cancer and an individual’s potential for healing? And further, what is the relationship between the mind, the emotions and a cancer patient’s state of health? Pert suggests there is a profound and direct connection:
“We are all aware of the bias built into the Western idea that the mind is totally in the head, a function of the brain. But your body is not there just to carry around your head. I believe the research findings….indicate that we need to start thinking about how the mind manifests itself in various parts of the body and, beyond that, how we can bring that process into consciousness…the neuropeptides and their receptors are the substrates of the emotions, and they are in constant communication with the immune system, the mechanism through which health and disease are created.”
“Think of (stress-related disease) in terms of an information overload, a situation in which the mind-body network is so taxed by unprocessed sensory input in the form of suppressed trauma or undigested emotions that it has become bogged down and cannot flow freely, sometimes even working against itself, at cross-purposes.”
Your Brain May Not be in Charge
In a July 2004 interview with New Dimensions Radio (www.newdimensions.org), Pert and her husband and research partner, immunologist Michael Ruff, discussed the highly complex psychosomatic communication networks of information molecules we are all made of. They explain that we are not “brain centric” at all and that a state of mind is in actuality a state of consciousness in the body as well. The origins of illness really are within us.
Science and medicine have long been convinced that thoughts and emotions originate in the brain. In an interesting twist, Pert and Ruff disagree and suggest that “thoughts and emotions bubble up from the body to the brain, where we can process and verbalize them according to our expectations, beliefs and other filters—some get through and others don’t.” And then, Pert says, the frontal cortex of the brain creates stories and assigns meaning around those thoughts and emotions that do get through.
Our Immune Systems Can Learn and Respond
Pert tell us that neuroscience has now proved that immune cells can be conditioned to respond to stimuli, much like Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. Psychologist Robert Ader, at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, gave laboratory rats an immune-suppressing drug flavored with sweet-tasting saccharin. Eventually the rats became so conditioned to the effects that giving them only the saccharin and no drug at all caused their immune systems to become depressed—at the unconscious and autonomic level. Pert comments:
“We know that the immune system, like the central nervous system, has memory and the capacity to learn. Thus, it could be said that intelligence is located not only in the brain but in cells that are distributed throughout the body, and that the traditional separation of mental processes, including emotions, from the body is no longer valid.”
Later, in pivotal studies at the Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, scientist Howard Hall proved that the immune system could also be conditioned consciously using self-regulatory practices such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback, guided imagery, relaxation and autogenic training. Using several control groups, Hall demonstrated that with conscious preparation, through using one of the types of practices noted above, individuals could consciously control the stickiness of their white blood cells, as measured by both blood and saliva tests. Pert then asks the obvious question: “If the immune system can be altered by conscious intervention, what does this mean for the treatment of major diseases such as cancer?”
Can suppressing anger or other emotions contribute to the development of cancer—a theory proposed by Dr. Lydia Temoshok in her chapter on this website? Since expressing emotions contributes to a free flowing network of peptides and cellular communication in the body, Dr. Pert says yes–absolutely. “My research has shown me that when emotions are expressed….all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behavior.”
A general theory of cancer suggests that we all have errant or mutated cancer cells created in our bodies every day, yet only some individuals will go on to develop the disease. Normally our immune systems destroy these errant cells, yet in individuals whose immune systems are severely compromised, this mechanism fails. If the immune system is influenced by the “molecules of emotion” and the peptide/receptor system in the body, then what happens if the free flow of peptides is interrupted on a continual basis by the repressed emotions of a lifetime?
Pert says it’s not too hard to figure out what might happen in such a case:
“Let me begin to answer by saying that I believe all emotions are healthy, because emotions are what unite the mind and the body. Anger, fear, sadness, the so-called negative emotions, are as healthy as peace, courage and joy. To repress these emotions and not let them flow freely is to set up a dis-integrity in the system, causing it to act at cross-purposes rather than as a unified whole. The stress this creates, which takes the form of blockages and insufficient flow of peptide signals to maintain function at the cellular level, is what sets up the weakened conditions that can lead to disease.”
“All honest emotions are positive emotions. Health is not just a matter of thinking ‘happy thoughts.’ Sometimes the biggest impetus to healing can come from jump-starting the immune system with a burst of long-repressed anger. How and where it’s expressed is up to you—in a room by yourself, in a group therapy situation where the group dynamic can often facilitate the expression of long-buried feelings, or in a spontaneous exchange with a family member or friend. The key is to express it (appropriately) and then let it go, so that it doesn’t fester, or build, or escalate out of control.”
Aim for Emotional Wholeness
Pert suggests the following simple recommendations for our health and well-being, gleaned from all the scientific data she has included in describing the tenets of PNI and their implications for healing:
“Aim for emotional wholeness. When you’re upset or feeling sick, try to get to the bottom of your feelings. Figure out what’s really eating you. Always tell the truth to yourself. Find appropriate, satisfying ways to express your emotions. And if such a prescription seems too challenging, seek professional help to feel better.”
“I believe the alternative or complementary therapies are a form of professional help much less likely to do harm and more likely to do good than conventional approaches. They work by shifting our natural balance of internal chemicals around, so we can feel as good as possible. They are often particularly helpful for alleviation of the many chronic maladies that currently have no good medical solutions …”
“Last but definitely not least, health is much more than the absence of illness. Live in an unselfish way that promotes a state of spiritual bliss that truly helps to prevent illness. Wellness is trusting in the ability and desire of your bodymind to heal and improve itself, if given half a chance. Take responsibility for your own health—and illness.”
Adapted from “Healing Cancer – The Latest Research in Mind-Body Medicine”