Psychoneuroimmunology July 2017 • 4 minutes

Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of how our thoughts are affected by the state of our nervous and immune systems. When we have a stress response (allergy, fight or flight, panic) it implicates the way our nervous system works and that implicates our thoughts. Robert Ader and Nicholas Cohen discovered PNI during an immune system study on rats. They fed rats from two water bottles, one that was only water and one that contained a solution of sweetener and a drug that suppresses immune function. The rats had the intended response when they consumed the drugged water. However, the rats continued to have their immune system suppressed even when the drug was removed from the water and only the sweetener remained in the solution. The theory is that because the immune and nervous systems associated the immune suppression with the sweetened water, their bodies responded as though the water still contained the drug. The study was reproduced enough to be accepted widely as true, and PNI was born. The idea being that the nervous system and immune system are one means of defence.

Since then a great deal of research has discovered various interesting ways that the nervous and immune systems interact to affect the way we think. Many mental illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder) and physical ones (autoimmune disease, diabetes, allergies) seem to be partly implicated by this connection, and can feed into one another or cause comorbidity between the two systems in the body. What that means in practical terms is that a chronic stressor could be affecting how you think about yourself. That is a pretty disturbing and significant conclusion. At this point it is not known the full implications that the neuro-immune system in your body has on the way we think, but the indications are that it is significant. The interesting thing is that there are only a few major categories of disease that are increasing in the modern developed world. Those categories being mental illness and autoimmune illness. Pretty much every other category of disease is going down. And the commonality between those two sets of disease just happens to be PNI. Hence all the research (and my) interest in it.

Given the significant implications of PNI as a field of study and area of increasing health burdens, it is important to understand how it works. It seems like our bodies are getting worse at managing inflammation. The implication is that our bodies are attacking themselves in a way that is more harmful than it is helpful. The reason for our bodies to be attacking themselves is unclear, and the symptoms vary greatly depending on the root cause of the autoimmunity and the severity of the autoimmune response. The goal at base is to reduce autoimmunity, reduce harmful or exaggerated inflammation, and stabilize the stress hormones and neurotransmitters in our body. This would lead to more regulated immune function, which begets a more stable and functioning nervous system, which begets better cognitive function and mental health. It is a good thing when these dysregulated responses happen in an acute way, such as a response to a legitimate and significant threat to safety, but it can be extremely bad if the stress response is prolonged, such as in the case of a life long chronic allergy response to certain environmental stressors.

I think that the world needs a system that learns and monitors these markers and tries to unwind what the solution is. In order to build such a system you would need a way to monitor the levels of various hormones and neurotransmitters on an ongoing basis. Once you have a reliable way to get that data, along with subjective data from people about how they feel, what they think about and what is affecting them, you can do some high speed weighted pattern recognition (a.k.a. machine learning) to figure out what possible cause and effect relationships exist that contribute to dysregulated immunity. It would take decades to successfully conceptualize, build, launch, maintain, interpret and iterate on such a system, but it seems worth it if we can figure out why these specific categories of disease are increasing so much. Eventually we would have a strong and somewhat strange map of correlations between environmental factors (ie. using a dishwasher, eating gluten, having a dog, driving to work) and neuro-immune implications (acne, brain fog, anxiety, panic, sleep problems). We could then predict and prevent such problems in future.