April 20, 2001
Grin and Bear It
Researchers Study Laughter's Effect On Illness
L O S A N G E L E S, April 20th; UCLA psychiatrist Margaret Stuber spends her days showing
kids funny videos. But don't laugh, it's serious research.
Stuber, who works at the UCLA
Jonsson Cancer Center, is heading up the Rx Laughter study. The researchers are trying to
figure out whether pediatricians should be prescribing laughter to help heal sick
"What I'm actually hoping for is nothing less than revolutionizing the
way we treat kids," Stuber said. Ever since author Norman Cousins claimed to have
laughed himself out of a terminal disease, scientists have theorized that laughing somehow
bolsters the human immune system. UCLA researchers are putting that theory to the test. So
far the results look promising.
"So our suspicion from the data we have is that laughter really helps
fight off infection," Stuber told Good Morning America's Science Editor Michael
Guillen. "So if that's true then having people laugh on an ongoing basis should be
helpful for healing and fighting off illness."
Help From Hollywood
To gather up their arsenal of funny material, the researchers got help
from Hollywood. In fact, the Creator and brainchild of Rx Laughter is entertainment
industry executive Sherry Dunay Hilber. Ms. Hilber is the Founder and President of Rx
Laughter . Ms. Hilber brought the project to UCLA's Dr. Stuber and Dr. Zeltzer, and
continues to oversee the entire project. An experienced primetime network creative
executive, Ms. Hilber has overseen such top primetime comedy series as
"Roseanne" among numerous others.
She called on the talents of comic legends including the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and
Abbott & Costello, all of whose living offspring are donating the films to the
"How do you license something like that?" said Chris Costello, daughter of comic
actor Lou Costello. "You can't, it's like, do you put a price tag on health?"
Initial research focused on healthy children, and their responses to
humorous videos. The doctors used non-invasive medical procedures to measure heart rate,
and other biologic functions to see if laughter has a measurable physiological effect on
healthy children and adolescents.
Next the research will shift to young patients with diseases such as
cancer and AIDS that impact the immune system. The hope: humor can be incorporated into
treatment procedures for young patients. For example, children and adolescents undergoing
chemotherapy or other frightening procedures could watch funny videos to help alleviate
stress and fear.
Wired Into Laughter
The UCLA study is just starting, and is slated to run five years, but
it's already getting some tantalizing results. Perfectly healthy kids
are wired up, then asked to do something harmless, but painful. They are asked to submerge
one of their hands in cold water, at 10 degrees Celsius, and keep it there for as long as
they can, up to a maximum of three minutes.
On average, kids are able to hold their arms in the freezing water for
only about 87 seconds. But if they are shown funny videos during the
painful procedure, their heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing - all
their vital signs - get better, stronger, so they're able to put up with
the pain for 125 seconds, a full 40 percent longer.
And afterwards, a sample of the stress hormone Cortisol in their saliva shows that
laughing helps their bodies recover from the ordeal much faster.
"I'm hoping we can prove that laughter actually heals, that laughter can not only
help with immediate pain and fear, but actually help make a difference for people who are
fighting long-term illness," Stuber said.
Take Two Abbott and Costellos
Many of the children in the study had never seen some of the slapstick classics that were
done 50 years ago. One of the potential pitfalls in picking comedy for adults is that they
are more selective than children, and one adult might react differently to slapstick than
"For my father, he loved kids so this would have been a real triumph,
you know, for him to think that their movies were being shown in the
hospitals today to help kids," Chris Costello said.
Does this mean that doctors might someday say something like "take two Abbott &
Costellos and call me in the morning? "
"I would love it," she said. "I would love it."
April 20 - Probably the most famous example of laughter as medicine goes back to Norman
Cousins, the former editor of Saturday Review magazine. He suffered from ankylosing
spondylitis, a connective-tissue disease, and was convinced that laughing before bed
helped lead him to recovery because it was the only way he was able to sleep. In 1979, he
wrote Anatomy of an Illness, describing his struggle. But he's not the only one who has
made the laughter connection.
A Japanese study that was published in the February issue of the Journal of the American
Medical Association looked at people allergic to dust mites. When the subjects were
injected with dust-mite allergens, they developed smaller skin rashes after watching the
Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times than they had before seeing the movie.
When the subjects watched weather, their response was not affected.
Another study of college students found that those with a good sense of humor had fewer
colds and upper respiratory infections than students who did not.
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