LOUD OR SOFT, a laugh tickles the brain's reward center, Stanford University scientists say, and that's all to the good.
Using magnetic imaging scanners on college students, the researchers found that humor can turn on brain networks that send reward messages to the system, the same areas that amphetamines and cocaine are known to trigger. Yet humor doesn't carry the drugs' ill effects, and may offer other benefits, too.
While earlier researchers have noted that a good sense of humor appears to have health benefits, including increasing immune-cell counts and decreasing pain and anxiety, they hadn't yet made the sight gag-brain connection.
Identifying the funny bone in the brain is not a theoretical exercise. Ideally, there'll come a day when doctors can use this to identify people who have lost their sense of humor, a commonly noted symptom of depression.
That's important because major depression is the leading cause of disability, according to the World Health Organization. About 9.5 percent of adult Americans suffer a depressive episode each year - some 18.8 million people in 1998, for example, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. About one in six Americans experiences major depression at some point in his or her life.
Deeply depressed workers cost companies more than $12 billion in lost work days, decreased productivity and medical costs if the sufferer self-medicates with alcohol or illegal drugs, according to a RAND Corp. study. Families with depressed members who aren't getting treatment face a Herculean struggle just to keep up with the day-to-day flow of life.
Should researchers confirm that humor triggers the same response in most people, family doctors would have a relatively simple and direct way to identify those suffering from such mood disorders - as well as knowing better when they have healed.
That could bring a faster smile to millions.