A new research fund will test the science behind ancient health traditions.
Anecdotal evidence abounds to suggest that mind-body exercises help sick people heal. Now scientists are trying to figure out why.
Some studies have found that contemplative practices like mindfulness or tai chi exert specific effects on body-related areas in the brain; others suggest they can enhance immune function.
“But what nobody has done,” says Catherine Kerr, PhD, an assistant professor (research) of medicine and family medicine, “is bring these two sets of findings together to look at whether body awareness and underlying brain mechanisms in contemplative practice are actively involved in changing the immune system and decreasing inflammation.”
With backing from the new Berkman Landis Family Fund, Kerr will explore how qigong, a traditional Chinese meditation and movement exercise, affects breast cancer survivors struggling with fatigue, depressed mood, and sleeplessness after chemotherapy. Her multidisciplinary team—which includes Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, of which Kerr is director of translational neuroscience research—will measure neural and immune responses in breast cancer survivors enrolled in a qigong trial at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative in Providence.
One of the study’s broader goals is to test pre-scientific folk theories of self care described in traditional Chinese texts. “The ancient literature states that when you cultivate the ability to directly and clearly lead the mind to focus on different parts of the body during qigong and tai chi practice, you also cultivate improved immune function,” Kerr says.
Mara Berkman Landis ’89 says her own experience with alternative medicine, which finally gave her relief after a years-long illness, prompted her and her husband, Dean Landis, to establish the research fund. “If an Ivy League institution could work toward validating experiences people like me have had, that would be the best way to effect change in the medical world,” she says.
The seven-figure gift also will provide research opportunities for Alpert medical students and establish a “Day of Mindfulness and Self-Care,” a healing symposium at which students will meet patients who use mind-body therapies—people whom physicians otherwise might never encounter because, Kerr says, they are managing their own care. “There’s a bias [in medical practice]toward people having the most suffering, who are repetitively seeking help,” she says.
The symposium will show medical students how to incorporate self care into their own lives, Kerr adds. “Frankly, they’re in the red zone of stress,” she says. “By stepping back from stressful thoughts and emotions, taking a mindful pause—there are good data showing that this can be really helpful.”
The prospect of student participation thrills Landis. “I would love for medical students to understand the difference between surviving and healing,” she says.