CURE – the influence of the mind over health and disease

Mind over matter is a mantra that echoes across the medical world. But, what does it really mean? Can our thoughts and feelings really influence our ability to heal ourselves and perhaps prevent us from getting ill in the first place? Jo Marchant has written an intriguing book on the subject and I’ve just bought tickets to hear her speak about Cure at the Royal Institution on Thursday January 19. It promises to be a fascinating evening.

A stroke of bad luck at the hairdressers

Head bent backwards over the sink, having my hair washed, with the massage chair on full strength, a stroke is generally furthest from my mind. For one unfortunate man, it became a reality. Dave Tyler, aged 45, went for a routine haircut in a Brighton hairdressers and two days later had a stroke. In hospital, doctors asked whether he’d had his hair cut recently.

I thought of this story again when I went to our local hairdressers, part of the same nationwide chain. After a claim from Dave Tyler’s lawyer that the salon had offered insufficient neck protection, the hairdressers settled before the case when to court, with a pay out of £90,000. I wondered about discussing this with the girl washing my hair.  But she was full of the Christmas spirit and it seemed churlish to lower the tone, so I kept my musings to myself.

Primed for the Christmas festivities with a new haircut, and thankfully no other ill effects, I’m still wondering about the science behind this seemingly freak occurrences. Looking through the medical literature, it has been reported before, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence, with only a few cases reported. For example, in 1987 there was a report in the medical journal The Lancet which described the case of a 42 year old woman who’d had a stroke after having her hair washed.

A stroke happens when the blood supply to an area of the brain is cut off, usually by a blood clot (an ischaemic stroke) and more rarely a bleed (a haemorrhagic stroke). When the brain is deprived of the blood-borne oxygen and nutrients, the brain cells are damaged and/or die leaving the sufferer with impaired thoughts, speech or movements.

It does seem likely that some individuals may have a weakness in an artery supplying the brain, possibly from previous trauma, which predisposed them to a stroke from having their neck extended over a basin or similar situations, such as neck manipulation at chiropractors. An artery may be damaged, leading to a blood clot that can travel to the brain. Two days after his haircut, Dave Tyler began suffering from headaches and he collapsed at work. Two years later he still has blurred vision and, although he can walk again with a stick, he can’t drive or sail his dinghy.

In January 2014, a Californian woman, who’d also suffered from the so-called  beauty parlour syndrome, conducted an informal survey and found that 80% of hairdressers were aware that a stroke was possible after having your hair washed. But, the UK Stroke Association have stressed how small the risk is and suggested that hairdressers minimise this risk by cushioning the neck further with towels and avoid excess pressure on the neck.

BrainCanDo – rewiring the teenage brain

Schools are constantly on the lookout for ways to help teenagers understand their behaviour and use that knowledge to boost their learning, manage stress and stay healthy. BrainCanDo is an ambitious research project studying the teenage brain, initiated by Julie Harrington (headmistress of Queen Anne’s, an independent girls school in Caversham, Berkshire) who has a keen interest in neuroscience.

The project set out to understand how normal everyday activities such as eating breakfast and riding a bike become automatic and second nature. What areas of the brain are involved and how can we improve memory to deal with stressful situations like exams? Since its launch three years ago, students at two state schools (The Grey Coat Hospital and Westminster City School) and two independent schools (Emmanuel School and Sutton Valence School) have been involved.

Working with scientists from three universities (Oxford, Reading and Goldsmiths, University of London) a variety of project have been initiated including: how music can make you smart, the power of positive thinking, why humming music helps girls do maths, managing stress and why getting the giggles is contagious.

By learning how the brain operates in different situations, these research projects are helping scientists and teenagers understand the plasticity of the teenage brain and how wiring the right corrections at this crucial stage in life is so important.