Is It in the Cards?

A New Study Suggests Playing Bridge Can Bid Up Your Immunity

New findings suggest that brainy card games such as contract bridge may at least temporarily raise production of a key blood cell involved in fighting off illness. After 90 minutes of play, bridge players had increased levels of immune cells, according to research reported last week.

Marian Cleeves Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, presented the findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.

Diamond studied bridge players from an Orinda, Calif., women's bridge club. She chose bridge players because the game involves skills stimulating a part of the brain called the dorsolateral cortex, part of the frontal lobe that earlier animal research suggests may play a role in the immune system.

Contract bridge is an ideal activity to study in humans, Diamond said. Bridge players must plan ahead, use working memory, show initiative, sort cards and keep many items in sequence--mental challenges involving the dorsolateral cortex.

The new findings are based on before-and-after blood samples drawn from 12 bridge players--three foursomes of women in their 70s and 80s. In between the blood draws, the women played 90 minutes of bridge.

Afterward, the blood samples showed a rise in levels of white blood cells called T cells, which are produced by the thymus gland and deployed by the immune system against viruses and other threats. The T cell count jumped significantly in eight of the bridge players, and slightly in the other four.

The findings add to the burgeoning field of neuroimmunology, whose very name reflects the fact that the nervous system and the immune system are no long considered separate and isolated bodily systems, said Ira Black, chairman of neuroscience and cell biology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J. "Clearly there's an immense amount of crosstalk between the immune system and the nervous system coming to light."

What isn't clear is whether the apparent boost to the immune system from an activity like contract bridge is lasting or transient, and whether the increase in T cells could eventually be targeted against specific illnesses.

The study's findings are preliminary and cannot yet be considered proof that brain activity can boost the immune system, Diamond noted. But because the brain's cortex is largely under voluntary control, she said in a statement released by Berkeley, the results suggest "the possibility of us learning to voluntarily control the level of white blood cells to help combat disease."

--Don Colburn