‘Mindfulness’ Meditation Alters Gene Expression, Study Suggests

The Huffington Post  |  By Jacqueline Howard 12/09/2013 7:53 am EST

meditation genes

It’s no secret that mindfulness meditation — a practice that encourages focusing attention on the present moment — can ease emotional stress. And evidence is mounting that mindfulness also may have key benefits for your physical health — from lowering blood pressure to helping curb addiction.

But a new study conducted by researchers working in Wisconsin, Spain, and France shows that mindfulness can even affect your genes. Specifically, the study shows that mindfulness can limit the “expression” of genes associated with inflammation.

“The changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” study co-author Dr. Perla Kaliman, a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona in Spain, said in a written statement. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”

For the study, a group of experienced meditators practiced mindfulness over the course of an eight-hour period. During that same time period, another group of people simply engaged in quiet non-meditative activities.

What did the researchers find? After the sessions, they noticed a so-called “down-regulation,” or a suppression, of inflammatory genes in the meditators compared to the other group. Go figure, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups at the start of the study.

“The product of genes, e.g., the proteins that they manufacture, will vary with the extent to which the gene is turned on or off,” study author Dr. Richard J. Davidson, psychology professor and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, told The Huffington Post in an email. “We can think of genes possessing a molecular volume control that ranges from low to high that will govern the extent to which the gene produces the protein for which it is designed. The genes that we found to be down-regulated with mindfulness mediation practice are those implicated in inflammation.”

Davidson said in the statement that this new research is the first of its kind to show changes in gene expression within mindfulness meditators.

This study is slated for publication in the February 2014 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Here is another summary of Davidson’s work:

Study reveals gene expression changes with meditation

Dec. 4, 2013  by Jill Sakai

With evidence growing that meditation can have beneficial health effects, scientists have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body.

A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.

The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation….

Richard J.  Davidson

Study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds 

“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain where the molecular analyses were conducted.

The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.

The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.

However, it is important to note that the study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day of practice. Instead, the key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities — an outcome providing proof of principle that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.

Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic epigenetic responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.

“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.

“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions,” Kaliman says. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”

Study funding came from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (grant number P01-AT004952) and grants from the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and an anonymous donor to Davidson. The study was conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.

Here is the capsule of the research report:

Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators


Summary

Background

A growing body of research shows that mindfulness meditation can alter neural, behavioral and biochemical processes. However, the mechanisms responsible for such clinically relevant effects remain elusive.

Methods

Here we explored the impact of a day of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation in experienced subjects (n = 19) on the expression of circadian, chromatin modulatory and inflammatory genes in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). In parallel, we analyzed a control group of subjects with no meditation experience who engaged in leisure activities in the same environment (n = 21). PBMC from all participants were obtained before (t1) and after (t2) the intervention (t2 − t1 = 8 h) and gene expression was analyzed using custom pathway focused quantitative-real time PCR assays. Both groups were also presented with the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST).

Results

Core clock gene expression at baseline (t1) was similar between groups and their rhythmicity was not influenced in meditators by the intensive day of practice. Similarly, we found that all the epigenetic regulatory enzymes and inflammatory genes analyzed exhibited similar basal expression levels in the two groups. In contrast, after the brief intervention we detected reduced expression of histone deacetylase genes (HDAC 2, 3 and 9), alterations in global modification of histones (H4ac; H3K4me3) and decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes (RIPK2 and COX2) in meditators compared with controls. We found that the expression of RIPK2 and HDAC2 genes was associated with a faster cortisol recovery to the TSST in both groups.

Conclusions

The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.

Keywords

  • Mindfulness;
  • Meditation;
  • Epigenetics;
  • Inflammation;
  • HDAC;
  • Stress
Corresponding author: Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas de Barcelona IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS, c/Rosselló 161, 6th Floor, 08036 Barcelona, Spain. Tel.: +34 93 3638338.
Corresponding author at: Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1500 Highland Avenue, Madison, WI 53705-2280, USA. Tel.: +1 608 265 8189.

 

MORE FROM HuffPost SOURCES REGARDING MINDFULNESS AND RELAXATION BENEFITS:

It Makes Your Brain Plastic

Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain’s ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input.  For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood.

It Increases Gray Matter 

A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day showed that their brains were aging at a slower rate.    What this meant is they had thicker cortical walls thannon-meditators. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.

It Can Be Better Than Sleeping

In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators did better than the nappers and TV watchers – by a whole 10 percent.

It’s Better Than Blood Pressure Medication

In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication.  After meditating regularly for three months, 40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up your blood vessels.

It Can Protect Your Telomeres

Telomeres — the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes — are the new frontier of anti-aging science.

Longer telomeres mean that you’re also likely to live longer.  Research done by the University of California, Davis’ Shamatha Project has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres .

It Can Slow The Progression Of HIV

A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients who’d meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes.  Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the “brain” of the body’s immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people.

Its Pain Relieving Properties Beat Morphine

Earlier this year, a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent.  Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically show a pain reduction of 25 percent.   Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain.  This study also had a small sample size, making it harder to draw definite conclusions.

Relaxing Lowers Your Risk Of Catching A Cold

Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been at the forefront of stress research since the 1990s. Early on, he showed that chronic stress lasting more than a month but less than six months doubled a person’s risk of catching a cold.  His more recent research has tried to figure out why, and results seem to point to inflammation.

Relaxing Boosts Your Memory

A March study found that, at least in mice, chronic stress impaired the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in abstract thought, cognitive analysis and detecting the appropriate behavior for a given situation. Previous research in mice also showed that shorter bursts of stress impaired the centers of the brain involved in memory and learning, and left the mice struggling to remember how to find their way through a maze.

Relaxing Lowers Your Stroke Risk

A 2007 University of Cambridge study found that people who coped the best with stressful life events had a 24 percent lower risk of stroke. It may be partly due to the fact that people who handle stress well often are healthy in other ways, like exercising regularly and not smoking.   A 2011 study examined the specific effects of work-related stress, and found that among middle- and upper-class men, psychological stress caused about 10 percent of strokes.

Relaxing Keeps You Safe From Depression

Studies have shown that chronic stress can kill brain cells, and even prevent the creation of new ones, in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in a healthy response to stress, according to Time.com. In 2011, a study in mice illustrated these findings and began to explain one possible way antidepressants work. The mice exposed to a stressful situation didn’t want to eat, gave up during a swimming task much faster and exhibited “pleasurelessness” — similar to human depression symptoms like loss of appetite, sadness and hopelessness.

In humans, the prolonged presence of stress hormone cortisol can reduce levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are linked to depression.  Stress is also likely to exacerbate mood problems in people with a history of depression or bipolar disorder, and could trigger relapse.

Relaxing Helps You Make Better Decisions

It’s no surprise that when you’re under stress, you might not always be thinking so clearly. But a 2012 study found that stress seems to actually change how we weigh risks and rewards, and can cloud our judgment when we are faced with important decisions.

Counterintuitively, stressed-out people actually tend to focus on the positive, and may ignore the cons of the decision they’re about to make, one of the study’s authors, Mara Mather Ph.D., a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, said in a statement.  That may also help explain why alcoholics crave a drink more when they’re under pressure. “The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they’re less able to resist it,” Mather said.

Relaxing Keeps You Slim

We love a good comfort food every once in a while, but reaching for foods high in fat and sugar too often can pack on the pounds, and stress makes it harder to resist. Cortisol increases appetite, and may even specifically encourage junk food cravings.

Relaxing Eases Acne

It’s a vicious cycle: You’re stressed about that presentation at work, so you break out, and then you’re stressed about the breakout! Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but stress seems to up the amount of oil produced by the skin, clogging pores and causing acne, according to WebMD.

Flare-ups of other skin problems, like psoriasis, have also been linked to stress, and can be equally stressful themselves. But relaxing really helps: A 1998 study found that psoriasis plaques cleared up more quickly in people who regularly meditated.

Relaxing Will Keep You In The Mood

One of the big reasons that women lose that lovin’ feeling is stress, but men aren’t immune either. In fact, Kinsey Institute researchers found that stress zaps the libido of around 30 percent of men (although another 21 percent said it actuallyincreased their sex drive.). “Men are more likely to see sex as a stress reliever, whereas for many busy women, their husband’s desire is just another demand on their time and energy,” Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health at Boston IVF told Ladies Home Journal.

 
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