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A Rose Is a Rose Is Anecdotal Evidence

Psychologist Robert Ader used the scent of roses to help a young woman to suppress a hyperactive immune system that was attacking every part of her body. So reports the companion book to the Bill Moyers PBS documentary Healing and the Mind, in writing of the work of the University's George L. Engel Professor of Psychosocial Medicine.

In the late 1980s, a 13-year-old Cleveland girl with severe lupus erythematosus that was causing bleeding, seizures, kidney problems, and high blood pressure was being considered for a hysterectomy. Her condition was so dire that doctors feared she would die from severe blood loss when she began to menstruate.

Already treating her with a virtual pharmacy of strong drugs, the physicians were advocating a course of a powerful immunosuppressant, Cytoxan, the same one Ader had used in conditioning laboratory rats to associate drinking saccharine-water with suppression of the immune system. The patient's mother, a psychologist familiar with Ader's work, asked if he could adapt his methods to help reduce her daughter's dosage of the drug, thus lessening its toxic side effects. (Reducing the dosage of medications by making the best use of the body's own system for healing is one of the goals of psychoneuroimmunology research.)

To work in this way, Ader said, the drug would have to be associated in the patient's mind with an unpleasant and unforgettable flavor, and suggested combining it with cod liver oil and the scent of a strong rose perfume.

Once a month, accordingly, she received Cytoxan intravenously, sipped (ugh!) the cod liver oil, and sniffed the perfume, all the while calling up in her mind the image of a rose. In the fourth month, she drank the oil, sniffed the perfume, and conjured up the rose, without the Cytoxan. By the end of the year, she had received only half the total dosage she would ordinarily have been given, with the same results as from a full drug regimen.

Surviving the disease and subsequently in college, whenever she was in need of an immune suppressant, she imagined a rose.

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