Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

Suffering from heart disease? Perhaps a daily dose of Monty Python will help. Do I sound crazy? Well, I guess that’s beside the point, so don’t answer that. But really, a good giggle might be just what the doctor should order.

For over 10 years Dr. Michael Miller, Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has been trying to understand the link between mood and vascular health. It all started when he noticed a correlation between stress and vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels a.k.a. not a good thing). In that study, participants were asked questions that included things like “if you showed up to a party wearing the same outfit as someone else how funny would you find it?”. There was a marked difference in the response of those people who suffered from heart disease and those that didn’t, with the sick individuals finding such situations 40% less amusing.

Obviously these data did not show a causal relationship between sense of humor and health, but they hinted that there might be something in the old saying “laughter is the best medicine”.

At the recent European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris, Miller presented new data on the topic. This time he had his test subjects watch either comedic (There’s Something About Mary) or stressful (Saving Private Ryan) movies while the physiology of their blood vessels was monitored.

Friday the 13th *again*...are you trying to kill me?!

Blood vessel diameter is estimated through brachial artery flow measurements. This non-invasive procedure uses ultrasound imaging to analyze the major artery of the arm, and is commonly employed in the diagnosis of diseases such as artherosclerosis. Using this technique, Miller and his colleagues saw a striking effect; blood vessel diameter in the 300 participants changed by 30-50% when watching Ben Stiller versus Tom Hanks (inter-patient variation was therefore internally controlled for, but to my knowledge personal taste was not). In a nutshell, watching the funny movie caused vasodilation, whereas the tense movie had the opposite effect.

This is perhaps not that surprising. The endothelium (interior surface) of blood vessels is known to respond to various hormones, including the stress hormone adrenaline that is produced in response to excitement, noise, and bright lights. Stressful movies could therefore elicit the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream, which would subsequently trigger blood vessel narrowing. It is entirely plausible that a similar hormone-mediated response could be at play in laughter-induced vasodilation, but nothing jumped out at me from a cursory glance at the literature.

So what does this mean for the prevention and treatment of heart disease?

“What we really need is a randomized clinical trial to determine whether positive emotions reduce cardiovascular events above and beyond today’s standard of care therapies,” concluded Dr. Miller. “In other words, eat your veggies, exercise and get a good belly laugh every day”.

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Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.

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Be the first one to mind the gap by filling in the missing three words as a comment and get your name in the blog along with a sweet new BenchFly mug!


UPDATE: Congratulations to T. Srinath – winner of this week’s Mind the Gap!

About the winner: Thiruneelakantan Srinath, PhD, is a Postdoctoral fellow at Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. He enjoys bench work, trekking and his motto is ‘Challenging my own limits’.

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About the prize: In addition to fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams, winners receive our new hot-off-the-presses large (15 oz) BenchFly mug to help quench their unending thirst for scientific knowledge… or coffee.

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Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? We’ve got you covered:

Sexual Identity and Autocrine Stimulation: Oh, To Be Teenage Yeast

On Wine, Sunburns and the Tendency of Headlines to Mislead

Which Came First: The Opossum or the Snake?

Pigeons Know a Crazy Woman When they See One

To Boldly Go Where No Worm Has Gone Before

Another One Bites the Dust: Rinderpest Eradicated

Scientists Just Wanna Have Fun (Like Uncaged Monkeys)

Mosquitoes Eating You Alive? Cheesy Feet Could be the Problem

Dirty Mouth? Clean it Up with Cancer Screening

Because in Space…It’s Always 5 O’Clock Somewhere

Curry: Now Good for Detecting Explosions, Not Just Causing Them

So You Thought Eating Poop Was Bad For You?

Are Fatty Acids the Cure for PMS?

Botanical Sleuthing Recovered Endangered Daisy

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. T. Srinath

    wrote on August 31, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Adaptive ultrasonic measurement is the non-invasive method used to measure the blood vessel diameter.

  2. T. Srinath

    wrote on August 31, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    'intima media thickness' measurement.

  3. Asim Rizvi

    wrote on August 31, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Blood vessel dilation test

  4. alan@benchfly

    wrote on August 31, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    We've got a winner! Adaptive ultrasonic measurement is a technique for measuring blood vessel diameter. So is "brachial artery flow", so we would have accepted either answer.

  5. T. Srinath

    wrote on August 31, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    wow! Thank you! This for the first time I participated and won also!!! Thanks again!!!

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