Thoughts can be deadly. So posits new research published this week in the journal Cell investigating the link between brain activity and tumor growth. Specifically, researchers at Stanford found that activity in the cerebral cortex promoted the growth of high-grade gliomas; they account for four out of every five malignant brain tumors, and a Stanford press release notes survival rates for those with the cancer have barely budged in the last three decades. To test the suspected link, the researchers implanted human glioma tumors into the brains of lab mice and then used light to increase brain-cell activity adjacent to those tumors. That increase did spur faster tumor growth, and the behavioral relationship—in which an organ's "primary function" fuels a tumor—is an unusual one. As lead author Michelle Monje puts it, "We don't think about ... breathing promoting the growth of lung cancer."
Monje has spent more than a decade studying diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, which exacts a cruel toll: It typically strikes around age 6, and it afflicts some 200 American kids each year; most are dead within nine months. (Earlier this month, the New Jersey Record shared the story of a family who donated 6-year-old Lily LaRue Anderson's tumor to Monje's team upon the girl's death; her battle with DIPG lasted 11 months.) A neuro-oncologist not involved in the study tells NPR that Monje's findings have "potential implications across the entire family of gliomas in the brain ... not just pediatric tumors" and could lead to new treatments. Monje tells NPR one route that's not an option: using sedatives to reduce brain activity. "We don't want to stop people with brain tumors from thinking or learning or being active." (Will tiny balls of gold help improve cancer treatments?)