It’s been said laughter is the best medicine, but no one has yet proved it. Now a Japanese scientist is unlocking the secrets of the funny bone, which he believes can cheer up people’s genes.
Geneticist Kazuo Murakami has teamed up on the study with an unlikely research partner: stand-up comedians, who he hopes — no joke — can turn their one-liners into efficient, low-cost medical treatment.
Genes are usually regarded as immutable, but in reality more than 90% of them are dormant or less active in producing protein, so some types of stimulation can wake them up.
Murakami’s tentative theory is that laughter is one such stimulant, which can trigger energy inside a person’s DNA, potentially helping cure disease.
”If we prove people can switch genes on and off by an emotion like laughter, it may be the finding of the century which should be worth the Nobel Prize or even go beyond that,” said Murakami (70), director of Japan’s Foundation for Advancement of International Science.
Three years ago, Murakami and Yoshimoto Kogyo, a leading entertainment company, jointly carried out their first experiment to let diabetics laugh at a comedy show performed by the firm’s top stand-up comedians after listening to a monotonous college lecture.
The two-day experiment showed that their blood glucose levels — a key gauge for development of diabetes — became lower after they laughed compared with after listening to the yawning lecture.
His latest experiment with the entertainment firm spotted at least 23 genes that can be activated. Eighteen of them are designed to work for immune response, signal transduction and cell cycle, while functions of the remaining five others are still unknown.
The findings, which Murakami says are the first of their kind, are scheduled to be published in January by Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, a United States academic journal.
”A laughing therapy has no side-effect, meaning it is an epoch-making treatment for clinical medicine,” he said. ”One day it won’t be a joke to see patients receive a prescription for a comedy video at a pharmacy for medical treatment.”
Having a good laugh has long been thought of as therapeutic. Laughter has been taught by yoga masters in India, home to a growing number of ”laughing clubs” whose members get together just to enjoy a chuckle.
Expectations from Murakami’s research are particularly high in Japan, where health-care costs are increasing year after year as the country rapidly ages.
Even with the research still in its early stages, a Japanese medical publisher, under the editorial guidance of Murakami’s research team, began selling DVDs last year instructing patients with diabetes on how to laugh.
The ministry of economy, trade and industry believes that laughter therapy could be put to good use in a project as demand grows for preventive medical care.
”If the relation between laughter and health is proved scientifically, it may have a big impact on ways to improve health,” said Hikaru Horiguchi, an official of the ministry.
”We also hope that a new type of industry will be created by linking the two different fields — laughter and medical treatment,” Horiguchi said.
With the ministry’s financial support, Osaka Sangyo University in western Japan formed a joint venture with researchers, firms and doctors in 2004 to provide elderly people with a complete medical-care programme combining physical training and laughter therapy.
”It was the nation’s first attempt to launch a medicare business with laughter in collaboration with the government, industry and academe,” said Mitsutoshi Nishikawa, a university official in charge of the ”Daito Dynamic Project”, based in Daito city in Osaka.
Nishikawa said Osaka was an ideal location to launch the project as the city is famous for its humour culture, with residents here said to be less hesitant to laugh in public than more taciturn Tokyo.
”We believe there is a big business chance here,” Nishikawa said.
”With the project, we can expect a reduction in medicare and nursing costs,” he said. ”Moreover, it is important for elderly people to live long with good health.”
In the programme, participants receive a medical check-up and gymnastic exercises while enjoying a comedy show performed by professional comedians. It also offers them cooking classes on making healthy foods.
”I used to laugh a lot when I was young, but I realised that I had not laughed much since getting older,” said Kiyomi Yamanaka, a 61-year-old housewife participating in the programme. ”But after attending the event, my blood flow has become smooth and I can now get down on my knees, which I couldn’t do before.”
According to project officials, the 92 participants polled said their combined annual health-care costs fell by about 30% to 2,26-million yen ($19 800) after they joined the programme.
Nishikawa said: ”In the future, we want to make medical treatment something not gloomy but fun. That’s our goal.” — Sapa-AFP