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April 20, 2001



"Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge."
- Abraham Joshua Heschel


Press Article

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.

Is laughter really the best medicine?

Help From Hollywood
Wired Into Laughter
Take Two Abbott and Costellos

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 children.

"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."

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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 project.

"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.

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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.

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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 another.

"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."

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Other Laughter Studies

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.