An experiment that started out as a fourth-grader's science project has challenged the validity of therapeutic touch, a controversial healing treatment offered by tens of thousands of practitioners in the United States and other countries.

Emily Rosa, 11, of Loveland, Colo., was a coauthor with her parents and another researcher of a study on therapeutic touch published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). At age 9, she designed an experiment to test whether practitioners of therapeutic touch could detect the human body's "energy field," which such practitioners claim to be able to feel, assess and adjust in order to heal a sick person.

Despite the name of the technique, the practitioner doesn't actually touch the person being treated. Instead, the healer focuses on helping the sick person and moves his or her hands over the body a few inches away from it, seeking to assess and adjust the "energy field." The practice has been used for a variety of ailments, including chronic pain, surgical wounds and burns. According to the JAMA study, therapeutic touch practitioners have described the energy field as "hot," "cold," "tingling," "throbbing" and "tactile as taffy."

The test found no evidence that the 21 practitioners who participated in the study could consistently identify the presence of a hand hovering near one of their own. The study's conclusions -- that the "energy field" can't be detected and that claims for therapeutic touch are therefore groundless -- outraged proponents of the treatment, delighted its critics and led to a whirl of interviews and television appearances for Emily and her mother and stepfather, nurse Linda Rosa and mathematician Larry Sarner.

Emily said she got the idea of testing practitioners' ability to feel an "energy field" because her parents had been looking into the medical research on therapeutic touch.

"I'd heard a lot about it around the house," she said. "My parents are skeptics, but I wanted to see for myself."

Because she was a child, Emily Rosa accomplished what many adult skeptics had been unable to do: She persuaded a group of therapeutic touch practitioners to submit to a scientific test of their method, said former magician James Randi, who runs a Florida foundation that seeks to debunk "paranormal" phenomena.

"She did it for less than 10 dollars," Randi said. "Very highly educated older people in charge of the health care system, including the Office of Alternative Medicine of the NIH . . . apparently were unable to do this."

Dolores Krieger, a professor emeritus of nursing science from New York University who developed therapeutic touch with a colleague in the early 1970s, attacked the study's methods and conclusions.

"I think it's completely irrelevant," she said. "I think it's invalid. . . . I cannot believe that 21 out of a population of over 100,000 {practitioners} is an adequate sample size to make generalized statements."

Emily Rosa said she and her mother contacted Krieger last year when Krieger was visiting Colorado and asked her to undergo Emily's test. "It was about 10 minutes of her time," Emily recalled. "She wouldn't take the test. . . . She had somebody else write us back that she was too busy."

Krieger estimated that she has taught 47,000 people how to perform therapeutic touch during the last 25 years. Proponents of the therapy say it has been taught in 80 universities in more than 30 countries, and is frequently included in the curricula of nursing schools.

"In health, a fundamental law of dynamic symmetry maintains vital energies in self-regulated, balanced flow; in illness, there is a critical imbalance of those energies," Krieger writes in "Therapeutic Touch Inner Workbook," published last year. "When they are guided by conscious, mindful action, as in therapeutic touch, specific vital energies can be projected to a healee by a healer who is moved by compassion to help or to heal another."

Krieger's prominence in the nursing profession helped the technique gain acceptance at U.S. nursing schools, said Cynthia Hutchison, research coordinator at the Colorado Center for Healing Touch, which is affiliated with the University of Colorado Health Science Center. "In the early 1970s, nursing was becoming much more technology-oriented," Hutchison said. "Therapeutic touch just took off like wildfire because I think it was meeting the desire for nurses to be able to treat their patients holistically."

She said nurses still make up the majority of the Colorado center's students, although other health professionals and lay people also take courses there. Some nurses and other health care workers use therapeutic touch as part of their routine care of patients. But some practitioners offer it as a separate treatment, charging an average of $30 to $60 for a session lasting up to an hour, she said.

Nurses doing doctoral research have performed most of the approximately 100 studies of therapeutic touch's effectiveness, said Donal O'Mathuna, a professor of bioethics and chemistry at Mount Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio, who has reviewed the scientific literature on the subject, including unpublished theses.

"There were some, especially earlier {studies}, which did find some positive benefits, in terms of reduction of anxiety, some alleviation of pain, and . . . hastening of wound healing," he said. However, he added, later studies often failed to confirm those findings -- but these negative results usually weren't published in scientific journals, leaving the impression that most of the research has been positive.

Linda Rosa, Emily's mother, is a nurse who in the late 1980s became concerned that therapeutic touch, crystal healing, acupressure and other practices were becoming accepted by her profession without adequate scientific evaluation.

Rosa became a member of the Questionable Nurse Practices Task Force of the National Council Against Health Fraud, a nonprofit organization that gathers information on questionable therapies. A few years ago, she urged administrators at the University of Colorado Health Science Center to review the nursing school's therapeutic touch program. Henry N. Claman, a professor of medicine and immunology at the university, was chairman of the committee that carried out the review.

Claman said his committee concluded that the existence of human energy fields was unproven and that therapeutic touch's claims as a healing modality were unsubstantiated by research. "We found that it was not convincing," he said.

Emily Rosa's experiment didn't address whether therapeutic touch helped sick people. It asked a more basic question: Could practitioners really feel an energy field?

The experimental design was simple. The practitioner sat on one side of a screen and placed her hands, palms up, through two holes, resting them on a table. Emily hovered her hand several inches above either the practitioner's right or left hand (choosing which one by flipping a coin). The practitioner then had to say which of her hands was near Emily's hand -- in theory, by feeling the energy field. Emily then calculated the percentage of correct answers.

"I had to find the average and everything," she recalled. "My parents are the ones who taught me about that, though, because they weren't teaching that in school."

In 1996, Emily tested 15 Colorado practitioners for a fourth-grade science project. Last year, she expanded the data to include a total of 21 people -- nine nurses, seven massage therapists, two lay persons, one chiropractor, one medical assistant and one blood-drawing technician. All but two were women, reflecting the preponderance of women among practitioners.

In 280 trials, the 21 practitioners correctly identified the location of Emily's hand 123 times, or 44 percent of the time. Only one person scored as high as 80 percent, and that individual scored 60 percent on a retest. If the practitioners had guessed, an accuracy rate of 50 percent would have been expected to occur by chance.

Linda Rosa said a statistical analysis established that the sample size was large enough to reflect the practitioners' accuracy fairly.

"If they go to a clinic and they heal people, then you would expect them to feel the energy field all the time," said Emily.

Krieger questioned the qualifications of the practitioners who participated, and said the experimental setup, in which those tested kept their hands still, was very different from what happens during a real session, in which the practitioner's hands are always moving.

Hutchison said that feeling a patient's energy field is not necessary for performing therapeutic touch. "They're testing a noncritical variable and then they're claiming that they are debunking the professional research of nurses for the past 25 years," she said.

Sara Fore, a spokesman for the American Nurses' Association, said her organization could not comment specifically on the study but maintained that therapeutic touch can be beneficial. "We do believe that therapeutic touch can be used to benefit patients when employed with conventional and traditional treatments," she said.

But Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch Inc., a retired psychiatrist and a coauthor of the JAMA study, argued that when people put their faith in ineffective therapies, they run the risk of passing up treatments that work.

"I don't think it's a good idea that we believe in unseen forces that scientists can't detect," he said, "because where do you stop?" CAPTION: In Emily Rosa's experiment, the therapeutic touch practitioner placed her hands through two holes in a screen. Emily hovered her hand above one of the practitioner's hands. The practitioner had to say which of her hands was near Emily's hand. Emily then calculated the percentage of correct answers.