Power of Faith

Heal thyself

The front cover of National Geographic (December 2016) caught my attention. Entitled “The healing power of Faith” by Erik Vance, the article covered a number of “miraculous” locations where ill or injured pilgrims travel for a cure.

It including the Shrine of our Lady at Altötting, Germany, St Catherine’s in Siena, Italy, the Ganges and Madonna dell’Ambro in Montefortino, Italy.

But the story that captured my imagination was that of Mike Pauletich of the US. In 2004, at age 42, Pauletich began to develop symptoms of what he believed to be Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. His aim in baseball was off, his arm hurt and his hand shook. Pauletich was later diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s.

He was told that within a decade he wouldn’t be able to walk, stand or feed himself.

Pauletich’s condition did not deteriorate as quickly as predicted but he struggled with the disease and bouts of depression.

Then in 2011 he heard of a company Ceregene that was trialling new medication called Neurturin. It was a new gene therapy for those afflicted with Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is the result of a chronic loss of dopamine. Tests on monkeys had shown that a protein called Neurturin protected and possibly repaired damaged dopamine-secreting neutrons and this could halt the progression of the disease.

The trial conducted by Stanford University involved cutting two holes, one into each of the brain’s hemispheres and injecting the drug into target areas.

Pauletich’s improvement after the surgery was impressive. His mobility and speech improved and his shaking disappeared. His personal physician was astonished at the reversal of symptoms. Today you can hardly tell he ever had the disease.

In 2013, Ceregene announced that its trials of Neurturin had failed. Patients treated with the drug did not improve any more significantly than patients treated with a placebo. Pauletich was treated with a placebo.

The article explores the many “miracles” that occur through placebo treatment. The more elaborate the placebo, the better the result. It’s as if the anticipation of a cure, kickstarts the mind and body into developing a cure.

For a long time scientists have known that the body produces opioids, endocannabinoids, serotonin and dopamine. Scientists have been able to track the placebo effect using brain scanning technology. Normal pain sensations begin at the injury and travel to the brain. The placebo effect travels in the reverse direction. An expectation of a cure in the prefrontal cortex sends a signal to parts of the brain stem which releases opioids down the spinal cord to the injury.

Create the right environment and expectation and we self-medicate. Expensive placebos are more effective than cheap ones. Similarly, placebos with brand names work better than generic products. In France, placebo suppositories are favoured,(?) where as in England they prefer to swallow their placebos. Injections are better than pills and surgery trumps injections.

Pauletich’s wife cannot believe the change in her husband. He is a new man.

Maybe science is beginning to understand the power of prayer.