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(Last updated 1/12/06)

 

Professor John Sheridan and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso , in an on-stage discussion during Mind and Life XIII: The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation. Photo is © 2005 Mind and Life Institute

CROSSING BOUNDARIES: OHIO STATE SCIENTIST DISCUSSES STRESS, IMMUNITY WITH DALAI LAMA

COLUMBUS , Ohio – If you had 30 minutes to spend with one of the world's most renowned spiritual leaders, what would you want to talk about?

John Sheridan

John Sheridan, a professor of oral biology and of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State , faced that question. He had the good fortune to discuss his research with the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist community's highest-ranking spiritual leader.

Sheridan was one of about two dozen experts invited by the Mind and Life Institute to participate in a conference in November in Washington , D.C. , called Mind and Life XIII: The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation. The Mind and Life Institute is based in Boulder , Colo. , and has worked for nearly 20 years to establish collaborative research efforts between modern science and Buddhism.

Sheridan, an expert on immunology, began his discussion with the Dalai Lama with a seemingly mundane topic – the common cold.

It offered a perfect segue into what Sheridan was originally asked to discuss – his research findings on the effect of stress on the nervous and immune systems. Because on the day that Sheridan sat on stage next to the Dalai Lama in front of an audience of 2,500, His Holiness had a cold.


“Some of the neuroscientists at this meeting had already shown that meditation can change the brain's neural circuitry. But what researchers don't YET know is how these changes in neural circuitry affect the rest of the body, or if those changes have any affect on a person's health or behavior.


“He had been on a world tour, and had to deal with the stress of traveling from place to place,” said Sheridan, who is the associate director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine at Ohio State . “He hadn't been getting enough sleep, and sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on the immune system.”

Sheridan admits that he was a little stressed about meeting the Dalai Lama.

“I've never met with a world leader in exile who happens to be the leader of an incredibly large religious group,” Sheridan said. The Dalai Lama is originally from Tibet . He fled Tibet in 1959, when the Chinese government took over rule of the tiny nation.

During his conversation with the Dalai Lama, Sheridan pointed out that stress can increase the body's susceptibility to infection. He talked about the pathways of immunity that he and other scientists have uncovered in studies on humans and animals – pathways that allow different systems in the body to communicate, such as the nervous and immune systems.

Sheridan and his Ohio State colleagues have shown that stress can reduce the effectiveness of vaccinations given to elderly caregivers. Studies in mice have suggested that social stress increases the chances that wounds will become infected, and that certain social interactions affect the immune system to the point where it can no longer control inflammation. Unchecked, inflammation can cause irreversible organ and tissue damage.

Research by scientists at other institutions suggests that meditation may reduce the suppression of immunity triggered by chronic stress. Recent scientific evidence also indicates that meditation can change the activity of neural circuits.

“Some of the neuroscientists at this meeting had already shown that meditation can change the brain's neural circuitry,” Sheridan said. “But what researchers don't YET know is how these changes in neural circuitry affect the rest of the body, or if those changes have any affect on a person's health or behavior.

“It's only in the last few years that imaging technology has been sensitive enough to let scientists actually see fine detail like changes in blood flow patterns in specific regions of the brain,” Sheridan continued. “Now we can see how different parts of the brain react to different types of tasks, or even emotions.”

Previous meetings of the Mind and Life Institute focused primarily on how the brain reacts to meditation. The Institute broadened its focus during the November forum – participants discussed the effects that meditation might have on the rest of the body.

These talks between scientists and Buddhist practitioners began in 1987, and are held about every two years in the United States . The meetings are open to the general public.

On the surface it may seem odd that such seemingly disparate schools of thought would want to come together to discuss much of anything, that Buddhist practice seems at complete odds with the scientific method. Scientists are critical by nature, while a philosophy of non-judgment is the main principle of Buddhism.

But both scientists and Buddhists share a common focus – each group wants to understand the nature of reality and how the mind works.

“Add to that the Dalai Lama's keen interest in science, and you get this very unique conference,” Sheridan said.

“The scientific community has made significant progress in the last decade in understanding how the brain informs the body and how the body informs the brain,” Sheridan said. “We are trying to generate data that will help with understanding how mediation affects peripheral physiology.”

Scientists and Buddhist contemplatives alike want to understand how a person's perception of his environment influences his health. They also want to know what pathways in the body respond to someone's mental ruminations, whether meditative or stressful in nature, and how in turn these thoughts ultimately affect something as delicate as the immune system.

“In our laboratory, we ultimately want to know if, by mental training such as meditation, a person can actually change his neural circuitry and as a result effectively deal with chronic stress,” Sheridan said.

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Contact: John Sheridan, (614) 688-4629; Sheridan.1@osu.edu

Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; Wagner.235@osu.edu