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Ucla scientists study the physiological effects of yukking it up

Cory Fisher, Westside Weekly

Westwood – Laughter is the best – or one of the best – medicines, say two UCLA researchers, and now they’ve set out to prove it.

The UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center study, “Rx Laughter”, to be launched next week, will initially focus on what makes healthy children laugh by showing them carefully selected Cartoons, TV shows and classic comedy films. The materials that get the most laughs will then be used to test immune system responses in young patients with diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

“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”, said Margaret Stuber, a cancer researcher and UCLA professor who will head up the five-year study along with Lonnie Zeltzer, a UCLA cancer researcher and professor. “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 the brainchild of former CBS and ABC entertainment industry executive Sherry Hilber, who has overseen such TV shows as “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement”, “Cybill” and “Coach.” Hilber, a Beverly Hills resident, quit her network job to devote her time to promoting the study. “While we were taping the shows, I used to look out on the audience and see them laughing their heads off” said Hilber. “I wondered if it had a lasting effect. If so, how did it affect the cells in their body? Could this help seriously ill people?”

Before approaching Stuber and Zeltzer with her idea, Hilber spent many hours in the library, looking up past studies done on the physical effects of positive emotion. Although she found some existing preliminary studies, none had focused on young people with depressed immune systems.

Acting as a liaison between the medical community and the entertainment industry, Hilber was able to convince cable television network Comedy Central to kick in a $75,000 grant for “Rx Laughter.”

“It was an easy sell. It was the right thing to do”, said Tony Fox, Comedy Central’s Vice President of Corporate Communications. “The idea of humor and health is something we believe in. Plus, there are some long-term advantages to being associated with this study: what if we could ultimately prove that Comedy Central is good for you?”

With Hilber providing carefully screened comedy material, Stuber and Zeltzer will study potential changes in the immune systems of ill children and adolescents in response to laughter. They intend to monitor the physiological aspects of stress responses such as heart rate, blood pressure and palm sweats. The study will also measure levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol and various immune system factors.

“We have a pretty good idea about the impact that humor and laughter can have on a person’s mental well-being” said Zeltzer, who is also the Director of the Pediatric Pain Program at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. “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.”

In addition to the immune system, Zeltzer said they will also look at how humor might help to alleviate chronic pain and promote faster healing.

“Rx Laughter” will be conducted in three phases: Researchers will begin by determining what the healthy children and adolescents find funny. Secondly, noninvasive medical procedures will be used to measure the physiological effect of humor on the healthy group. The final phase will focus on testing physical responses to laughter in young people with cancer, HIV and other diseases that affect the immune system.

If a positive biological response is found, cartoons, TV shows and films could be integrated into procedures children might find frightening, such as blood draws and chemotherapy.

If implemented, the melding of conventional medicine with laughter would represent a philosophical and structural change in the way medicine is practiced at UCLA, Stuber said.

After reviewing hundred of classic and contemporary comedy tapes, Hilber said the research team will spend the next six months testing 100 students at several

West Los Angeles schools to see what brand of comedy they are drawn to. She also hopes children will learn early how to use humor as a coping mechanism. Stuber chuckled at the idea of sending consent forms home to parents asking if researchers could count the number of times their child laughs.

“This project has been a huge undertaking, but it’s a dream come true for me,” Hilber said. “If it’s proven that laughter does improve one’s immune system, then I should be one of the healthiest people in the world.”