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Tuned-in to rhythms

Franz Halberg, M.D., who pioneered studies on the strict monitoring of biological rhythms to help prevent stroke, reduce heart disease, and optimize cancer treatment, also investigates how the environment affects the body's cycles. (Photo: Scott Streble)

For decades, Franz Halberg, M.D., has researched the intertwined cycles of the body and the cosmos

Franz Halberg, M.D., wears a blood pressure cuff beneath a sleeve of the lab coat that he dons every day in his University of Minnesota office at the Halberg Chronobiology Center. The cuff—which he has worn for 22 years—feeds a stream of information to a monitor in his pocket. Halberg, who coined the term “circadian” decades ago and pioneered the study of biological rhythms soon after his arrival at the University in 1949, believes that strict monitoring of the body’s rhythms and cycles offers some of the most important insights into our health and the complex workings of the human body.

Cyclic variations

The 90-year-old Halberg has led and encouraged efforts to discover rhythms present in variations in the functioning of the body’s blood cells, the workings of RNA and DNA, heart rate, and many other crucial biological actions. These cycles can carry great medical significance. Research shows, for example, that excessive daily swings in blood pressure associated with a condition called circadian hyper-amplitude-tension can indicate an increased risk of ischemic stroke—even greater than the risks associated with hypertension, family history, smoking, and obesity. Similarly, if there is too small a variation in the daily cyclic variation of our heart rate, research has show a 550 percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease.

Yet few physicians take cyclic variations into account by doing such things as measuring the blood pressure of patients over an extended time span. Eventually, Halberg believes, they will. “Look how long it took physicians to learn to wash their hands,” he says. “Medical logic is not taught in school.”

Paying attention to our innate biological rhythms can give early warning of medical problems, produce better outcomes, and indicate when to administer or withhold medications and treatments. While much medical testing is designed to find results above or below “normal” thresholds, rhythm-based monitoring based on chronobiological principles can detect dangerous trends within the normal range.

“I have not found any biological function in which timing doesn’t play a role,” says Halberg, whose direct gaze carries the look of a scientist who has often met skepticism over a long career. “I don’t deal with skepticism,” he says. “My ego isn’t big enough to want to overcome it. I talk to those who listen, those who either do things or propagate ideas.”

What makes Halberg distinctive, explains his longtime colleague, Germaine Cornelissen-Guillaume, Ph.D., codirector of the Halberg Chronobiology Center, is a combination of persistence, fluency in many languages, and his deep care for his work. “His most important quality is that he sits down in front of the facts, and he is not much influenced by what other people think,” she says. “Not many people can do that.”

Crossing boundaries

Born in Romania, Halberg did not initially envision a life in medical science. “I wanted to be a poet, but my father read me the riot act,” he recalls. “I eventually found out that I can express what I wish as well by a statistical test as by a poem. Both show things we didn’t see before.” He graduated from medical school at the University of Cluj and spent time as a fellow at the Harvard Medical School before joining the University of Minnesota Medical School faculty. At the University, his research departed from that of others interested in biological clocks and rhythms.

“He’s been mostly interested in medical applications for biological rhythms research, an early pioneer in pushing for that,” explains Jole Shackelford, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of the history of medicine at the Medical School. “He has a history of moving the field into new areas.”

Halberg’s research in chronobiology—another term he coined—and his authorship of more than 3,000 research papers brought him international renown starting in the 1960s. He has received honors from the International Academy of Science, the Leibniz Society, the French National Academy of Medicine, and most recently, the World Organization for Scientific Cooperation, among many others. He most prizes an award from the Schmidt Institute of Physics of the Earth of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a medal with a diploma for contributions to geophysics. To Halberg, such cross-disciplinary recognition is a sign of the unified aims of all scientists and the possibility that boundaries between disciplines will someday disappear.

Environmental influences

In recent years, his focus has widened to include the field of chronomics—yet another term he invented, along with the science it describes. Chronomics investigates the influences of environment on our internal cycles, and facilitating research in chronomics is much of what the Halberg Center does today. Halberg is intensely curious about the effects of sunspots, solar wind, and magnetic fields on the biological rhythms of our bodies and even on our behavior—“the congruence of independent cycles,” as he calls it.

Is it important to tease out the connection between variations in solar wind and the international incidence of terrorism? Yes, replies Halberg, “it’s not good enough to prevent stroke if a suicide bomber blows you up.” These are investigations that only an unrepentant chaser of rhythms, immersed in the facts, can love—and the rest of us might be better off embracing, too.

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