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lizabeth Blackburn, PhD , the Australian-born professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She shares the award with her colleagues, Carol Greider, PhD, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore; and Jack Szostak, PhD , professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who, according to the Nobel Prize Committee, “solved a major problem in biology: how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation.” Blackburn was awarded the Nobel prize for her part in the discovery of telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect genetic information. In an interview with the New York Times, Blackburn described telomeres as “like the tips of shoelaces.” And, as with shoelaces, if the tips are lost, the ends start fraying. Blackburn’s discovery and her subsequent work with psychologists on telomeres, stress, and meditation, have opened new areas of inquiry into the components of aging and disease, at least one of which seems to prove a mind-body connection. “In my lab, we’re finding that psychological stress actually ages cells, which can be seen when you measure the wearing down of the tips of the chromosomes, those telomeres,” Blackburn said.


◆◆◆ REIKI BANNED AT CATHOLIC HOSPITALS IN THE UNITED STATES The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced that Reiki will no longer be practiced in the church’s hospitals and retreat centers.

Reiki, an energy-based therapy developed in Japan thousands of years ago that has become more common in the West, has been used by its practitioners to help patients manage pain, stress, and anxiety and recover more quickly from illness and surgery. The church bishops, however, have decided that the therapy’s efficacy is not supported by either the tenets of Christianity or science. “A Catholic who puts his or her trust in Reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s land that is neither faith nor science,” the bishops said. According to the Nashua, New Hampshire–based International Association of Reiki Professionals, Reiki has never purported to offer patients a specific cure for disease. Its use is as a therapeutic tool to help patients create within themselves an environment that facilitates healing. The Catholic Church’s ruling comes as Reiki is enjoying increasing popularity in the United States. According to a 2007 survey by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 1.2 million people in this country have experienced Reiki. Indeed, the therapy has captured the attention of NIH to the extent that the government-run health institute is funding a study of the effects of Reiki on stress. “Should Reiki decrease stress pathways or reduce physiological responses to stressful situations, it could be a useful adjunct to traditional medicine and have significant health and economic benefits,” an NIH statement announcing the study said. However, Herbert Benson, MD , director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the jury is still out as to whether Reiki’s benefits are based in science or in the placebo effect. “It’s not that the healing benefits

are not valid; it’s simply that it hasn’t been worked out whether it’s the placebo effect or whether it’s the Reiki itself,” Benson told the Boston Globe. ◆◆◆ OREGON HEALTH AND SCIENCES UNIVERSITY LAUNCHES STUDY ON STRESS REDUCTION TECHNIQUES FOR ALZHEIMER’S CAREGIVERS Oregon Health Sciences University’s Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders (ORCCAMIND) in Portland, has begun a study that will measure which of several potential stress-reduction techniques works most effectively for caregivers of Alzheimer’s Disease patients. Barry Oken, MD, director of the center and professor of neurology and behavioral neuroscience, and colleagues launched the study in October. Some 108 study participants have been placed into 1 of 3 groups: a 7-week meditation group, a 7-week caregiver training group, or a group that receives 7 weeks of regular relief from their caregiving duties by trained professionals. Successful stress reduction will be measured by reports of self-perceived stress by caregivers, heart rate variability, breathing irregularities, and stress hormone levels. “Currently there is little to no data to direct physicians and individuals [in stress relief techniques],” Oken s a i d i n a s t at e m e n t p o s t e d o n ORCCAMIND’s web site. He concluded, “The purpose of this study is to provide more direction so that physicians can give the patient/caregivers the best advice.”


ADVANCES Fall 2009, VOL. 24, NO. 3