Cages and Cancer

There's an absolutely fascinating new paper by scientists at Ohio State University in the latest Cell. In short, the paper demonstrates that mice living in an enriched environments - those spaces filled with toys, running wheels and social interactions - are less likely to get tumors, and better able to fight off the tumors if they appear.

The experiment itself was simple. A large group of mice were injected with melanoma cells. After six weeks, the mice living in enriched environments had tumors that were approximately 75 percent smaller than mice raised in standard lab cages. Furthermore, while every mouse in the standard cages developed cancerous growths, 17 percent of the mice in the enriched enclosures showed no sign of cancer at all.

What explains this seemingly miraculous result? Why does having a few toys in a cage help prevent the proliferation of malignant cells? While the story is bound to get more complicated - there nothing is simple about cancer, or brain-body interactions - the researchers present a strikingly straightforward chemical pathway underlying the effect:


In short, the enriched environments led to increases in BDNF in the hypothalamus. (BDNF is a trophic factor, a class of proteins that support the survival and growth of neurons. What water and sun do for plants, trophic factors do for brain cells.) This, in turn, led to significantly reduced levels of the hormone leptin throughout the body. (Leptin is involved in the regulation of appetite and metabolism, and seemed to be down-regulated by slightly elevated levels of stress hormone.) Although a few earlier studies have linked leptin to accelerated tumor growth, it remains unclear how this happens, or if this link is really causal.

It's important to not overhype the results of this study. Nobody knows if this data has any relevance for humans. Nevertheless, it's a startling demonstration of the brain-body loop. While it's no longer too surprising to learn that chronic stress increases cardiovascular disease, or that actors who win academy awards live much longer than those who don't, there is something spooky about this new link between nice cages and reduced tumor growth. Cancer, after all, is just stupid cells run amok. It is life at its most mechanical, nothing but a genetic mistake. And yet, the presence of toys in a cage can dramatically alter the course of the disease, making it harder for cancerous cells to take root and slowing their growth once they do. A slight chemical tweak in the cortex has ripple effects throughout the flesh.

It strikes me that we need a new metaphor for the interactions of the brain and body. They aren't simply connected via some pipes and tubes. They are emulsified together, so hopelessly intertwined that everything that happens in one affects the other. Holism is the rule.

More like this

New research at the Institute sheds some light on a protein that could make it harder for overweight people to stick to a diet. That protein helps regulate the effects of leptin - a hormone that reduces appetite and increases physical activity. People missing the leptin gene are invariably obese.…
I was perusing my newsfeeds last night looking for topics for Your Friday Dose of Woo this week when I came across what, initially at least, I considered to be primo material for my weekly bit of fun at the expense of the more far out excursions into woo. Then I thought about it some more. Early in…
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and at any moment directly affects almost 4% of the population, or about 10.8 million Americans. A diagnosis of cancer can be one of the most frightening moments in someone's life, and yet most people understand little about the disease. I…
In 2000, researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine made a surprising discovery that would start to change the way we think about the causes of depression. Ronald Duman and his colleagues chronically administered different classes of antidepressants to rats, and found that this…

Wow. That's pretty flippin awesome. I wonder what would happen if you did this study combined with one on diet. I know a 'Western/cafeteria' diet (i.e. actually giving the mice twinkies) can up rates of colon cancer dramatically. So boring environment + lousy diet -> cancer. But could the enriched environment compensate for the lousy diet or vice versa?

I also wonder a little about the ethical issue this raises. Poor mices in unenriched environments. It obviously makes some kind of difference. Though the authors describe it as low level stress. Aghh. Cognition is so confusing.

Also, I think it's important to note that this is probably mediated by a soluble serum factor (i.e. if you take serum from enriched environment mice it can inhibit in vitro cancer growth) and it's BDNF dependent inasmuch as BDNF knockout mice can't make whatever the factor is. But it can't be solely a cell mediated (e.g. immune cell) phenomenon if the serum can have an anticancer activity.

I wonder if all of the "enriched" cages had wheels. Is the difference not only toys but exercise?

Just a few words of appreciation: I recently bought your book 'Proust was a neurocientist'. To be fair, the cover draw my attention. I'm having a great time reading it, so my sincere congrats!(I'm Portuguese, like Damasio)

*"THE" Ohio State University ;)*

By Ryan Sittler (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

''Holism is the rule''- yes! Neuroscience is allowing Western medicine to prove what Eastern medicine has known for thousands of years. Thanks for the post.

I think John Muir said it well "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

@Julie F... Would you care to specify out of the findings/discussion of this experiment what it is exactly 'Eastern medicine' has known for 'thousands of years.' While you're at it, could you please define 'Eastern medicine' and how it differs from 'Western medicine.' As far as I am aware, there is only one kind of medicine; medicine that works. Anything without a strong, scientific, evidence base is not medicine and does not -in any way significantly differentiable from placebo- work. By holism, I assume -and am of course open to correction- that Jonah Lehrer is advocating a multi-disciplinary approach between the different scientific disciplines. Here, for instance, I see psychological theories of health being supported by observed neuroscientific and physiological evidence. By 'Eastern medicine' I fear you may be describing so-called 'alternative medicine', which is not supported in any way I can discern in this article. I'd be interested to read a clarification of your first comment.

By Galwayskeptic (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

What is so interesting about the study is that Western Science as represented by these scientists are actually studying anything that doesn't require medicine to help. Oh wait, they have been studying the effect of exercise for a long time, and the effect of diet but toys?? Radical indeed.

come now, that didn't just strike you, Molecules of Emotion by Candice Pert...the body is the subconscious mind

@Galway ...'Eastern Medicine' is that medicine that has not been supported by ethnocentric Western research

BTW, I wonder what the health effects are on experimenters that have to give hundreds of mice cancer are

What about physical education and games in schools? Have we been short changing our kids by reducing time and money for exercise/games? Should we honor the mind-body connection of our public school students. Private schools certainly do this.

By Mary M. Smith D.O. (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

This is a splendid explanation to my husband on why there is no limit to the jewelry that I need to have in my life. Toys toys toys - jewelry jewelry jewelry!!!

Little I know, "eastern therapy" centres its basis of diagnosis on the concept of "qi" (AKA the breath), and stress on the management of Yin versus Yang aspects of the entire person -i.e. psychology, physiology, etc all inclusive. Namely, cancer has yang and yin strains. Treatments would be different for a "yin cancer" vrsus a "yang cancer". Natural edible ingredients are prescribed.

The idea is to seek a balance of the qi flow in a person, to sustain an equilibrium state. When a person is sick, the qi is either stuck, or it is in imbalance (too much of yin or too much of yang).

One example-Sore Throat. It's considered generally as "heaty" i.e. too much yang qi, so usually one should drink lots of "cooling stuff", like carrot juice, water, etc. (For me, I just use a truckload of mouthwash lol)

Of course, my American husband will say this is coconut theory.

*Enjoy enjoy*

Why wonder Candice? Nobody is keeping this information from you. :-) There is no shortage of databases for locating scientific research and you can find very detailed methodologies exactly as to how they infect the mice.

Why don't you tell me why it is that 'Western research' does not validate your 'Eastern medicine'?

Also, if you have the time, I would be very interested to hear about Eastern medicine's contribution to some/any of the following: decreased infant mortality, longer lifespan and eradication of diseases such as polio and small pox. These are just a few of the things that have been made possible by scientific (western?) research.

Surely you must concede that these were advances made by science-based medicine?

By Galwayskeptic (not verified) on 19 Jul 2010 #permalink

Setting aside for a moment the "eastern" and "western" tags, it's clear that there are questions that science can be ill-equipped to address, let alone to answer, whether this is an effect of specific historical contingencies or of limits built into its methods. Empiricism sets constraints which are sometimes wonderfully productive, but they are constraints nonetheless. Until technology quite recently introduced a little light into the "black box" of living brains/minds, science could say very little about subjective phenomena like emotion, imagination, etc, and it's still limited to the most rudimentary descriptions. Thus the study of health in the broadest sense (one that includes interior states and subjective well-being) has been left primarily to those who embrace extra-scientific modes of inquiry.

One of the things I found most illuminating and helpful in your book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah, was your appreciation for the ways that science and art may entangle with and inspire each other without necessarily achieving any ultimate reconciliation. Your brand of interdisciplinary investigation seems to me the most fruitful, as it acknowledges that disciplines are bounded by literal and conceptual vocabularies, and these bounds are often paradoxically the source of their respective strengths.

Service centers routinely update manufacturer / model-specific technical reports and bulletins, generally as soon as available from the manufacturer. I know there are some shops/techs that are incompetent but I seriously doubt that all these vehicles are being serviced by inept service centers.

I was very pleased to search out this net-site.I needed to thanks for your time for this excellent learn!! I definitely having fun with every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to take a look at new stuff you blog post.

Needed to post you that very little remark simply to thanks a ton once again for these spectacular techniques you might have provided in this posting. Itâs so particularly generous with folks as if you to supply unreservedly what almost everyone could have marketed as a possible guide to earn some dough on their own, primarily in view that you'll have used it if you ever wanted. The tactics also acted being easy way to understand that most people have similar desire equally as my own personal to know very much more concerning this condition. Iâm there are 1000s of more pleasing opportunities in advance for many who examine your blog site post.

Wonderful web-site, in which did you observed this details in this article? I am glad I found it. i am going to be checking out back soon to examine what other content articles you may have.

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

I like the dear information you offer to your articles. I will be able to bookmark your blog and feature my kids take a look at up right here generally. I'm fairly sure they'll be informed lots of new stuff right here than anybody else!

ÿSe acuerdan del violinista en el tejado? ááTradición!! ááTradición!! ááTradición!! ááTradición!!

I am not positive where you are getting your info, however great topic. I must spend a while learning much more or understanding more. Thank you for magnificent information I was in search of this info for my mission.

W koncu matka odkrywa mojego10 cio letniego syna celowo zadaje sobie bol kaprysny dwulatek Mecenas Sila Nowicki jak juz wiecej sie nie. Zapisuj, zapisuj, zapisuj zachowania od tej stosowanej dla z CdLS i traktowania meczacym problemem, mimo genetyczne roznice u osob

The Zune concentrates on being a Portable Media Player. Not a web browser. Not a game machine. Maybe in the future it'll do even better in those areas, but for now it's a fantastic way to organize and listen to your music and videos, and is without peer in that regard. The iPod's strengths are its web browsing and apps. If those sound more compelling, perhaps it is your best choice.

From this point forward, I will have to reject comments on this topic that contain unverifiable information. I abhor the concept of censorship so if you publish a comment with a false email address please know that I have no way to request that you resubmit your comment and points/questions that would otherwise be valid would be lost. Know that I do not distribute/publish email addresses without written permission from the owner and they are kept private unless the owner wishes to make their email address known directly in their comment. ~ Drew McManus

I'll gear this review to 2 types of people: current Zune owners who are considering an upgrade, and people trying to decide between a Zune and an iPod. (There are other players worth considering out there, like the Sony Walkman X, but I hope this gives you enough info to make an informed decision of the Zune vs players other than the iPod line as well.)

Greetings!How are you? I see that you are still holding this blog, congrats! Did you had problems with Google during the last update? Just checked your rankings and it seems like you are doing a good job :) Hope you will maintain the quality, just don't forget about your friends ;) Bye-Bye :*