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Saturday, 11 November, 2000, 08:00 GMT
Bridge playing may boost health
A hand a day may keep the doctor away
The complex thought required to play contract bridge may increase the number of useful immune cells in the body, say researchers.

The card game is the latest - and most bizarre - lifestyle change to be advocated by immune system experts as a way of improving health.

Through voluntary control we may perhaps learn to change our immune system positively

Professor Marian Diamond
And it may be the first evidence that a person may be able to "think themselves" into a better state of health.

Professor Marian Diamond, of Berkeley University in the US, presented her findings to the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in New Orleans.

She believes it is evidence that a particular part of the brain may be partly responsible for the human immune response to infection.

The game of contract bridge is played by four people split into two teams. The idea is to co-operate with your partner to maximise the number of "tricks" won with a hand of cards.

The mental challenge is to accurately predict how many tricks can be won using you and your partner's cards, and to outsmart the opposing team during a bidding process.

Professor Diamond selected players at a women's bridge club in Orinda, California to use in her research.

Voluntary control

She said: "Contract bridge was ideal for what we were after.

"Bridge players plan ahead, they use working memory, they deal with sequencing, initiation and numerous other 'higher order' functions."

The part of the brain which deals with these is called the dorsolateral cortex, which is subject to voluntary control by the individual.

The 12 women selected for their study - all in their 70s and 80s - were all asked to play bridge for 90 minutes.

In blood samples taken before and after the games, the levels of key immune system blood cells had changed.

In eight out of the 12 women, the levels of T cells, which patrol the body looking for foreign cells to attack, had increased significantly.

Although the research suggests that the dorsolateral cortex may have a role in the immune system, it is far from proof, but Professor Diamond believes that more research is merited.

She said: "Since we know the function of this particular area of the brain, through voluntary control we may perhaps learn to change our immune system positively.

"That's what is causing the excitement."

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