Scientist Who Documented Mind-Body Link Honored

June 12, 2003

            A scientist who founded an entire field of study devoted to the link between the mind and the body?s immune system has been awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from Tulane University.

            Robert Ader, Ph.D., the George Engel Professor of Psychosocial Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, received the degree last month at Tulane?s commencement.

            Long before scientists and doctors were aware of connections between the brain and the immune system, Ader was performing experiments that formed the basis of an entire field of study now known as psychoneuroimmunology ? the relationship between the mind, the brain, and the immune system. In his best-known experiment, he coupled a distinctive taste with an immunosuppressive drug that made rats nauseous, then stopped giving the animals the drug. Not only did the rats still become nauseous; to Ader?s surprise several of the animals died. The taste alone was enough to suppress the immune system in the same way the chemical had. It was stark evidence of the mind?s power over the immune system.

            Many scientists and physicians were reluctant to accept such an idea; reactions ranged from skepticism to disbelief to scorn. But Ader and other scientists have accumulated so much evidence that such links are now widely accepted. Twenty-five years ago Ader and his colleague, Nicholas Cohen, an immunologist, held the one National Institutes of Health grant that funded such research; now, he says there are more than 200 projects funded nationwide. A book that he edited and then co-edited, Psychoneuroimmunology, grew from 18 chapters in the 1981 edition to 67 chapters in the third edition, published last year.

            A few years ago, his research was used to improve the health of a child with lupus. Based on his studies, doctors were able to reduce the amount of medicine she was on dramatically. Ader is hopeful the work will be applied to other patients as well.

            Unfortunately, Ader says, the research has been cited to support the use of alternative therapies whose value has not been proven scientifically. ?Psychoneuroimmunology has become the scientific umbrella for self-styled experts selling practices that have no other home in the health sciences,? he says.

            Ader, an experimental psychologist, directs the Center for Psychoneuroimmunology Research at the medical center. He is the founder and past president of the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society. He is also a member and past president of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research and the American Psychosomatic Society.

            A member of the Rochester faculty for 45 years, Ader is a graduate of Tulane and Cornell universities. Last year the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society created an award, the Robert Ader New Investigator Award, to be given to promising young scientists. Five years ago Ader was one of the first recipients of the university?s Arthur Kornberg Research Award; he also holds an honorary medical degree from Trondheim University in Norway.

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