Thinking can speed tumor growth? No wonder brain cancers are so deadly!


As I was looking for a topic to write this week’s journal entry on, I stumbled upon an article on NPR’s website with a shocking and surprising title: “Thoughts Can Fuel Some Deadly Brain Cancers”.  My immediate reaction was confusion: how could something psychological cause tumor growth?  And how can this be prevented without significantly reducing the quality of life of the patients?

In a new study published in Cell, researchers took a human glioma tumor, which is a tumor originating from glial cells, and implanted it in the brain of mice.  They then increased the activity of the surrounding neurons by using optogenetics, which is a method of controlling neurons by using light.  Unfortunately, compared to the control mice, the mice exposed to optogenetics had significantly faster tumor growth.

Gliomas, which are thought to interfere with myelination, often affects children around age 6.  This type of cancer as a horrible prognosis, with patients often dying 9 months after they are diagnosed.  Not only are the tumors often inoperable (tumor cells intertwine with healthy cells in the brainstem), but these new findings show that day-to-day activity is making the cancer more deadly.

The researchers believe that using sedatives while the patients are in treatment could reduce this rapid tumor growth.  This, however, is not ideal because this would stop patients from living as active of a life as possible.  If I had a solution to this dilemma, I would probably be a leading neurologist at some top tier hospital instead of a neuroscience student at Colby College.  A possible route to take, however, could be trying to temporarily shut off only the neurons surrounding the tumor.  Work has been done on the localized deactivation of neurons.  In Abnormal Psych, we recently discussed the use of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to reduce the activity of Area 25, which is overactive in severe depression.  The implantation of a pacemaker into the brain is an extremely extensive surgery and is only done when there are no other options.  I assume that if something similar were discovered for gliomas, the same would be true.  Gliomas, however, are extremely aggressive cancers and any possible treatment that could help would definitely be a milestone.


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