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Montreal, June 10, 2010-- Amir Raz, Canada research chair in the cognitive neuroscience of attention, poses outside his McGill University offices in Montreal, June 10, 2010. (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
Montreal, June 10, 2010-- Amir Raz, Canada research chair in the cognitive neuroscience of attention, poses outside his McGill University offices in Montreal, June 10, 2010. (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

Medicine

From magic trick to medical treatment Add to ...

Before he was a neuroscientist, Amir Raz was a magician.

He regularly performed stage shows to finance his university studies, but resisted introducing hypnosis to his act because he didn't understand the science underlying the crowd-pleasing stunt.

"The scientist in me would not let me perform it without understanding the mechanism and what is actually happening," said Dr. Raz, who gave up magic in the final years of his scientific training. Now a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, he is one of a small but growing number of brain scientists giving hypnosis serious attention.

He wants to know how it works and how it can be harnessed to help patients, especially children with Tourette's syndrome, asthma and other illnesses. His experiments also offer insight into how the brain operates, and in particular how it interprets - and sometimes overrides - the raw sensory information brought in by the eyes, ears and other parts of the body.

Dr. Raz, 41, still has the booming voice and stage presence of the showman who once convinced audience members he could read their minds. He knows that hypnosis still conjures up images of swinging pendulums and spiralling cartoon eyes. But he has come to see it as a natural form of extreme attention and prefers to call it "atypical attention."

He asks volunteers to focus on one thing - a single spot on their hand, for example - while he coaches them to relax and listen to his instructions.

"Some people are more prone to going into this atypical direction," Dr. Raz said.

He grew up in Israel, did graduate work in the United States and moved to McGill from Columbia University in New York three years ago. He also works at the Jewish General Hospital and collaborates with researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.

In one experiment, done at Columbia, Dr. Raz recruited highly hypnotizable university students. He told them that the words they would later see on a computer screen would be in a foreign language.

In the test, the words red, green, yellow or blue flashed one by one on the screen, but sometimes the letters were in a conflicting colour, the word red spelled out in green letters, for example. This makes it much more difficult for most people to say what colour they see, but not for the volunteers who had been hypnotized days earlier and given the posthypnotic suggestion that they'd see words they wouldn't understand when they took the test.

"They can tell you what colours are flashing on the screen, but they seem not to be reading it," Dr. Raz said.

Brain scans taken during the experiment showed that the highly hypnotizable volunteers were dampening down the part of their brain that plays a role in decoding words.

It is one of several experiments that suggest hypnosis can derail seeming automatic processes - such as reading - and that it affects "top-down processing," or how the brain interprets sensory input from the body, changing what people see, hear or feel.

An estimated 10 to 15 per cent of adults are easily hypnotized. But children, especially around the ages 11 and 12, are far more open to suggestion than adults, Dr. Raz said.

This suggests hypnosis may have new therapeutic applications in pediatric medicine, he said.

In one pilot study now under way, he has found that when he hypnotizes children with Tourette's syndrome, their tics subside. There is little or no twitching or cursing.

"You can't tell they have Tourette's," he said. "But when it is over, the tics slowly return."

Dr. Raz is now teaching the children techniques of self-hypnosis in hopes of extending their control over the involuntary movements and outbursts that characterize the neurological disorder. They learn, for example, to visualize that they are deflecting the tics they feel coming on.

He and his colleagues are also investigating whether hypnosis can improve lung function in children with moderate cases of asthma.

Hypnosis has been used as a medical treatment since the 18th century, and today some physicians employ it to help treat patients with pain, anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome and eating disorders, often in conjunction with other approaches.

"This is not quackery," said Edward Shorter, a University of Toronto professor who is an expert in the history of psychiatry. "These are serious approaches and real medicine."

Dr. Raz said hypnosis is still widely misunderstood, but that it is similar to meditation.

"People are beginning to appreciate some of these things can teach us a great deal about how the brain operates," he said, "and help us search within and find internal powers to help us live better lives."

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