Study looks at Effects of Laughter on Immune System
From Back to TheScience of Mental Health

February 1, 2000 - In a first-of-its-kind study focusing on ill children and adolescents with depressed immune systems, researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center will try to determine if laughter can help reduce pain and prevent and treat diseases.

The study, called "Rx Laughter," initially will focus on what makes healthy children laugh, showing them carefully selected classic cartoons, television shows and classic comedy films and gauging their reactions. Researchers then will use the programs that induce the most laughter to test immune responses in young patients with diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

If a positive biological response to laughter is found, the cartoons, TV shows and films could be incorporated into the care of ill children during procedures such as blood draws and chemotherapy to alleviate stress and fear and promote faster healing, cancer center researchers said.

"We ultimately hope to help children who are hospitalized and getting treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, where the immune system is vital and improving it could be life-saving," said Dr. Margaret Stuber, a cancer researcher and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Stuber and Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, a UCLA cancer researcher, professor of Pediatrics and Anesthesiology, and director of the Pediatric Pain Program at the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA, will head up Rx Laughter and conduct the five-year study.

"We have a pretty good idea about the impact that laughter and humor can have on a person's mental well-being," said Zeltzer, who also serves as associate director of the Patients and Survivors section in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control Research at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center. "But no one has really looked with any depth at the possible biologic links between health, having a good sense of humor and even the act of laughter itself. We'll study the impact that both humor and laughter have on the immune system and pain transmission and control."

The unique study, which opens today (Feb. 1, 2000), represents a cooperative effort between cancer researchers and the entertainment industry. Rx Laughter was conceptualized and founded by Sherry Dunay Hilber, an entertainment industry executive who has worked for CBS and ABC. Hilber brought her brainchild to Stuber and Zeltzer, who worked closely with her to develop the study plan. The study's funding comes in part through a $75,000 grant from the cable TV network Comedy Central.

"I have often wondered, while watching an audience laugh, how they were possibly affected both physically and emotionally by their laughter," said Hilber, a UCLA graduate. "Did it relax their bodies, improve their immune systems? If so, could this help seriously ill people? I hope very much that this program will lead to new ways of helping people live happier and healthier lives."

The Comedy Central grant is part of the network's "Comedy Rx" program, designed to heighten awareness of the positive effects of laughter, said Larry Divney, president and chief executive officer of Comedy Central.

"We know our programming is entertaining, but to think that we may discover that comedy is literally good for you is a very exciting proposition," Divney said.

In collaboration with Hilber, Stuber and Zeltzer will study potential changes in the immune systems of ill children and adolescents in response to laughter. Stuber and Zeltzer said they plan to monitor physiological aspects of the stress response, such as heart rate, blood pressure, palm sweats, the levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol and various immune system factors to determine if laughter really could be the best medicine.

"It's already been suggested that if you make people laugh, they don't get as anxious, and they deal better with pain and do better in the hospital," Stuber said. "What we don't know, and what we hope to find out, is whether laughter actually makes a physical difference in such things as speed of healing."

Rx Laughter is scheduled to be conducted in three phases, the first of which will determine what healthy children and adolescents find funny. For the second phase, Stuber and Zeltzer plan to use noninvasive medical procedures to measure heart rate and other biologic functions to see if laughter has a measurable physiologic effect on healthy children and adolescents. The final phase of the study will focus on testing physiologic responses to laughter in children and adolescents with cancer, HIV and other diseases that affect the immune system, Stuber said.