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Mind over matter: Does the mind matter?

The course title alone is enough to scare away the slacker and the faint of heart: "Psychoneuroimmunology." It doesn't help that on the first day Martha McClintock, who co-teaches the newly developed undergraduate course with JosÚ Quintans, comments that the name should really be "Psychosocialneuroendocrinimmunology." A glance around the room sees already uneasy expressions become concerned, and those who entered the room concerned begin to twitch nervously.

Picking up on the apprehensive vibes, Quintans leans against the chalkboard while McClintock sits on the corner of the instructor's desk, both coming across as likable parents with whom a teenager wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen at the mall. They assure the students in warm tones that although a great deal will be expected of them, they are prepared for the task.

"This is like an advanced graduate course or a faculty seminar," says McClintock, a psychologist who heads up Chicago's Institute for Mind and Biology. "But because you're wonderful University of Chicago students, in my experience over the years, you are entirely up to this kind of intellectual endeavor." Quintans, the master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, chimes in, "We're going to use you to help us learn to analyze this enormous field."

Some of the students maintain their worried expressions, still unable to break the broad-themed course down into a one-sentence description, but most will be back for the second class. Even though the registration is capped at 24 students, the 40-seat room, tucked away in a corner of the Donnelley Biological Sciences Learning Center, is filled to capacity, with a dozen or so stragglers lining the back wall, all making mental notes to arrive early to the next session. The waiting list is 50 names deep.

"We are somewhat overwhelmed by the numbers of interested students," says Quintans. But he shouldn't be too surprised. It is rare to see such a class among an institution's course offerings because relatively little is known about the intersection of mind and body and because the subject matter does not fit neatly into either the social or biological sciences. The professors believe that this is one of the first such courses in the country designed for undergraduates.

Psychoneuroimmunology-also known as "PNI"-is a young field that encompasses psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology, immunology, and social behavior. Developed in the 1970s by University of Rochester Medical Center psychiatrist Robert Ader, who appears as a guest speaker in the Chicago course, PNI studies the connection between the brain and the immune system. In theory, the consequence of this link is that psychological experiences such as stress and anxiety can influence immune function, which in turn may have an effect on the course of a disease.

"People listened politely," Ader once recalled of the initial reaction to his work in PNI, "but I did not have much luck in generating any interest in this hypothesis." Over the past 20 years, however, as advances in neuroscience brought the field into the modern age, scientists began to take more seriously the notion of a causal link between the mind and the immune system. Today, as the prominent research journals publish PNI studies and the U. S. Public Health Service funds hundreds of research grants in the area each year, the field is considered by many to be cutting-edge medicine.

"This is an adventure for both Dr. Quintans and myself," McClintock confides to the students. "And it is going to be really exciting to take on one of the big questions that's facing not only science, but creating political, social, and economic questions as well, because it has to do with how those social and psychological factors may affect risk for disease, and how certain diseases are more common in certain social, psychological, and epidemiological subgroups."

As an example, McClintock describes a recent discovery in the field of animal behavior. Researchers have found that when male mice are fighting, the subordinate mice change their hormonal and immune profiles in anticipation of a wound. They are not reacting to a wound that has already been inflicted-rather, there's something about knowing they are likely to receive a wound that enables them to prepare their immune systems to deal with a potential injury. "Less dominant males, who are less likely to be wounded, don't do that," says McClintock excitedly. "They have a completely different strategy. This takes animal models out of the realm of strict behaviorism-we're talking about anticipation and changing their profile.

As advances in neuroscience brought the field into the modern age, scientists began to take more seriously the notion of a causal link between the mind and the immune system. Today PNI is considered by many to be cutting-edge medicine.

"I am a biopsychologist by training," she adds, "interested in mind-body interactions. Most people in my field look at neuromechanisms as behavior and leave it at that. What I'm interested in is broadening the biology to include the immune system and the endocrine system-and at the psychological level, at which I am really trained, I'm interested not only in behavior, but also in the mind and belief and feeling and social interactions, and I believe this is applicable to animals as well as to people."

"The immune system is a huge system," says Quintans. "And so is the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Just by virtue of the fact that they are complex systems, there's going to be a bit of overlap, and in psychoneuroimmunology the goal has always been to make meaning out of the overlap as either unavoidable coincidence or one that actually has some evolutionary purpose to it."

The first question has been answered (according to the immutable laws of undergraduate psychology, students who walk into a class for the first time want two questions answered as soon as possible: what is this course about, and what is expected of me?). Pens scribble furiously to record the variety of disciplines involved in this project, while one industrious student in the second row glances down at her tape recorder to make sure it is still rolling, as if to say, "Did you get all that?"

McClintock is the first to broach the second question. "For every class you will submit a question based on the readings. The idea is to train you to write a good synthetic question-ideally one that covers at least two of the readings and synthesizes them into a critical form-to write a conceptual question that could be a basis for class discussion. The questions and class discussion are an essential part of this class."

A student in the third row asks about the weekly assignment: "How long do you want our responses to be?"

"We don't want responses," says McClin- tock. "We want good questions. You can even ask a question you think you have a good answer to, and we'll discuss it in class. But just focus on formulating a question."

The students take their assignment seriously, and the following week McClintock walks into class holding several dozen e-mail printouts bearing questions like "How can the microflora hypothesis be valid given what we know about the process of urine?" and "If the experimental environment has little resemblance to the natural environment, how are the results accurately interpreted?"

Both questions send the class into rounds of discussion and problem solving, but the professors want less factual queries and more synthetic thinking. The final assignment for the course will be a synthetic and critical essay, due at the end of the quarter, in which students will respond to the question, "What is a big question and what advances have we made to achieve answers to big questions?"

Until that time comes, though, the students spend the class periods discussing the questions that they've prepared. At the end of each session, designated students lead their classmates in closing discussion of the assigned readings. Since the readings come from a diverse array of fields that are rarely brought together in the classroom, two students operating as discussion leaders synthesize the material, showing how the readings are related, and thus drawing connections between the fields. Two more students act as commentators, critiquing the discussion itself to help their classmates examine the questions they are asking. "The purpose of the course is to really try to teach ourselves and learn and explore in this field," McClintock says. "I think we can be trained at all levels, and even in the profession of science, to be critical, to take the role of the commentator." - C.S.

 


  DECEMBER 2000

  > > Volume 93, Number 2


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