Science has not proved that this energy exists, that anybody can detect it or manipulate it, or that it has anything to do with disease. In fact, proving the existence of such energy would require a dramatic transformation in what is known about disease and how the human body works.
In fiscal years 2005-2007, NCCAM spent $104,000 on a grant that led to a study of "energy chelation" as a treatment for fatigue in breast cancer survivors.
In an "energy chelation" session, the healer places his or her hands 5 or 6 inches away from the body "to see if they could tell any difference in pressure or texture in your local atmosphere," said the Rev. Rosalyn Bruyere, of the Healing Light Center Church. Bruyere is a California healer who invented the technique.
The healer then scans the body, starting at the foot and working up to the head, eventually treating problems by channeling energy, said Bruyere, a co-author on the study, published this year in the journal Cancer.
Seventy-six fatigued breast cancer survivors were divided into three groups. One group received eight "energy chelation" sessions from healers trained in Bruyere's technique.
Another group received mock "energy chelation" sessions from skeptical scientists who were told to think about studies and grants during the sessions.
At the end of the study, those receiving "energy chelation" felt less fatigued, but so did the placebo group receiving sham sessions from the preoccupied skeptics. (A third group was put on a waiting list and felt no improvement.)
Dr. David Gorski, a breast cancer surgeon with Wayne State University in Detroit, called the study "brain-meltingly bad."
Energy chelation is "magic, faith healing," he wrote in an email. "The whole thing, from a scientific standpoint, is laughable."
Bruyere agreed that the study was flawed, but not for the reasons mentioned by Gorski. The problem, she said, was that the skeptical scientists probably were healing the patients despite their best efforts.
"The sham is not really a sham," Bruyere said. "You can tell me to think about research and a grocery list, but my energy is going to fill them. It's human nature."
Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of NCCAM since 2008, wrote in an email that the center has not awarded any new grants to study practices like distant prayer or other energy healing for several years.