Psychoneuroimmunology studies the connection between psychological processes and the human body. It is most often applied when discussing immune system and nervous system activity. Those who follow the science believe that thought processes effect the overall health and strength of the immune system.
Until the 1970s, it was standard belief among the modern Western medical community that the immune system was autonomous, meaning that it functioned on its own without influences from other parts or functions of the body. In 1975, Dr. Robert Ader coined the term Psychoneuroimmunology to express his belief that there is a link between the way people think and their overall health.
He and his followers went about proving that it is possible to classically condition the immune system. During the first stage of the experiment, they gave mice saccharine while injecting them with a drug that caused an upset stomach and suppressed the immune system. The mice began avoiding saccharine. Once the aversion was put into place, the mice were once again given saccharine, this time without the shot. The majority of mice who had received the original aversion injections died while eating only saccharine.
Dr. Ader and his colleagues suggested that the saccharin alone suppressed the immune system because the body had been conditioned to believe that saccharine was a killer. This hypothesis is applied to the human body. For example, if a person is told that they have a dangerous and possibly fatal disease, they are more likely to become depressed. Psychoneuroimmunology suggests that this depression can actually lead to more health problems or quicken the body's decline.
The central idea behind Psychoneuroimmunology is that the central nervous system, neuroendocrine system and immune system are interlinked. The brain sends messages via the central nervous system. Those messages were once thought to be a one-way communication device or a response only to outer stimuli. Psychoneuroimmunology allowed researchers to see that communication as two-way, meaning that the brain sends the messages not only in response, but also to create a response.
Research of the late 20th and early 21st century indicates that there is a connection between strong emotions like fear, rage and anger and the strength of the immune system. When extreme emotions are not expressed properly, there is an excess of epinephrine, the stress secretion. Epinephrine then causes a chemical breakdown that results in a weakened immune system and susceptibility to disease.
Conversely, there also appears to be a link between the body's physical condition and the mind. It has long been thought that exercise improved one's overall health and mental state. Studies are underway in the early 21st century to discover if exercise can in fact strengthen those with weakened immune systems. It is theorized that the exercise improves the mental state, which improves the body's resistance to disease.
Psychoneuroimmunology is one of the newest areas of health research. Since this area of research reaches across several disciplines, it makes it difficult to find those qualified to speak on all levels. There is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to determine just how significant the links between mind and body are.