Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lymphatic Vessels Link Brain and Body

Back when I was in college around 1990 one of the hot areas of interdisciplinary study was psychoneuroimmunology, a field built around the experimental observation that cognitive states could affect the function of the immune system. Researchers hoped that such a connection could provide an explanation for the placebo effect, the effectiveness of alternative healing modalities such as acupuncture, and impaired immune system function in depressed patients. It was also thought that it might be relevant as an explanation for the "relaxation response" provoked by meditation, which appears to have anti-inflammatory properties.

The base hypothesis was a logical one, but the mechanism behind it proved incredibly stubborn. Especially in the case of the placebo effect, it's not that anyone doubts something real is going on. It has to be controlled for in every medical drug trial, even though it's poorly understood. Also, last year researchers studying acupuncture may have discovered a chemical pathway involving interleukin-10, an anti-inflammatory compound produced by the immune system, that seems to be activated by acupuncture treatment.

In my article, I offered up the hypothesis that this interleukin-10 pathway could work in conjunction with the lymphatic system to produce the results reported for acupuncture treatment. A chart of the acupuncture meridians follows the lymphatic system fairly precisely, and a needle pentrating a lymphatic vessel will promote an immune response. So the needle would promote the production of interleukin-10 at the point of contact, and the lymphatic system would move the substance some distance from it. This is a straightforward chemical model that involves no mysterious energies, while at the same time explaining the effectiveness of exercises such as Qigong sets that promote the movement of lymphatic fluid.

Neuroscientists have now identified that the network of lymphatic vessels connected with the brain is more extensive than previously thought, which not only supports some of my contentions about acupuncture but which may also finally provide the mechanism that psychoneuroimmunologists have been seeking for nearly thirty years. It could explain the placabo effect and many other findings that relate subjective state of mind to immune system function. The newly discovered vessels are shown in green in the image on the right.

In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. That such vessels could have escaped detection when the lymphatic system has been so thoroughly mapped throughout the body is surprising on its own, but the true significance of the discovery lies in the effects it could have on the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis.

“Instead of asking, ‘How do we study the immune response of the brain?’ ‘Why do multiple sclerosis patients have the immune attacks?’ now we can approach this mechanistically. Because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system through meningeal lymphatic vessels,” said Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, professor in the UVA Department of Neuroscience and director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG). “It changes entirely the way we perceive the neuro-immune interaction. We always perceived it before as something esoteric that can’t be studied. But now we can ask mechanistic questions.”

So if this turns out to complete the model of acupuncture that began with the interleukin-10 findings, I'm going to ask this question one more time. Have these researchers proved the existence of a paranormal phenomenon? I ask because in August of 2012 Skeptical Inquirer contributor Dr. Harriet Hall described acupuncture as paranormal and therefore bunk. Even though I understand that these researchers never followed the proper procedures and therefore would not be eligible to win the prize money, it seems to me that the two studies may nonetheless answer the Randi Challenge.

I never expect the Skeptics to admit this, and I've already seen some comments online to the effect that "it's not paranormal, because science can explain it." But if that's the primary criterion, the conclusion it leads to is laughable. It means that you can only win the Randi Challenge if you don't understand how whatever paranormal phenomenon you're demonstrating works. In fact, since the Challenge itself is an experiment that must be conducted under controlled scientific conditions, it may be fully self-negating. "Oh, you can demonstrate this scientifically. That means it's not paranormal, so we keep the money."

So let's say that I work out a model of magical operations involving entangled quantum information fields, and derive a tensor equation that accurately predicts probability shifts based on changes in that information. I could then go on to demonstrate the effectiveness of ceremonial magick, but "fail" because I was able to work out a viable, testable hypothesis and explore it in an empirical fashion. Seeing as that's pretty much what magicians all do with the tools at our disposal (including our own minds), it's not hard to see how silly this could potentially become.

If the term paranormal can only be used to describe phenomena that cannot be explained by current or future science, that explains why nobody has ever won and nobody ever will. Anything that affects the material world in any way can be investigated scientifically given the right tools. Likewise, with that definition of paranormal, Skeptics are simply stating a tautology - "no material phenomenon that science will never be able to investigate exists." I'm not a capital-S Skeptic, but I believe that too. Any material change is, by definition, going to be amenable to some future form of scientific inquiry.

Few magicians believe that the scientific method by definition can never apply to magical processes. In fact, the credo of many Thelemic magicians is "The method of science, the aim of religion" and another term for this path is Scientific Illuminism. I expect the day will come when the right tools are available for investigating consciousness, and when that happens the mechanism behind magick will yield itself rather easily. Currently, the unsolved "hard problem of consciousness" is what's in our way, because we don't yet have a viable model of how it works. Without that, it's hard to know where to begin.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Nerd said...

If these "skeptics" can elucidate their Universal Field Theory, then they can tell me what is "possible" and what is "paranormal." Until then, they can stfu and continue taking payoffs from big pharma to lodge false complaints against cutting edge doctors.

BTW, the tool for investigating consciousness is subjectivity itself, ie "fist person methods." ;)

Scott Stenwick said...

Yes, subjectivity is currently the only tool we have to explore consciousness. However, in terms of objective analysis it has a whole lot of problems. Structural psychology fell apart around 1900 because it relied on introspective data that nobody could agree on closely enough to construct a general model, and consciousness studies has the same problem today.

The capital-S Skeptics are about the furthest thing there is from critical thinkers. The minute they can't explain something away they just accuse everyone involved of fraud or attribute it to "mass hysteria," which really means "I need an answer that I could pull out of my ass." "Mass hysteria" is no better understood than psychic powers.

Rita said...

Robert Anton Wilson did a great parody of the Skeptics in his Historical Illuminatii series (unfortunately never completed). One of his characters sees a meteor fall and retrieves it. When he presents the evidence to a scientific society the evidence is mocked for several reasons that have nothing to do with the facts of the matter. Very entertaining, particularly if you had read his earlier account of an encounter with a panel of contemporary skeptics, including Randi.

Scott Stenwick said...

Wilson also wrote The New Inquisition, which a great takedown of the professional Skeptic movement. As I recall, that was where he commented that of course he believed in unidentified flying objects, because he encountered unidentified non-flying objects all the time just going about his day.