Molecular geneticists finally crack how meditation influences genes

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Conventional western science and medicine has long held that one’s mind or psychological state cannot have physical effects on the body; so much so that subjective feelings of being ill are generally dismissed as ‘psychosomatic’ and hence not a real indicator of how physically unwell the body is.

This mind-body divide has now been truly broken down, as researchers are identifying hundreds and thousands of genes that are affected by our subjective mental states.

Feeling constantly sad and depressed can genuinely turn on genes that make us physically unwell and prone to viral infections and chronic diseases, just as feeling particularly relaxed and peaceful can turn off those genes and activate others that help us heal and fight infections. The emerging field of human social genomics is demonstrating that social conditions, especially our subjective perceptions thereof can radically change our gene expression states. This has opened up new ways of intervention.

In the United States and other industrialized countries, ‘integrative medicine’ is becoming increasingly important in healthcare delivery in its focus on disease prevention and amelioration through healthy diet, lifestyle, stress management and cultivation of emotional well-being. Among the most popular approaches in integrative medicine are traditional deep relaxation techniques referred to as ‘yogic/meditative practices’, which include yoga, diverse meditation and breathing exercises such as qi gong, tai chi, etc. Over the years, many studies have suggested that such practices have positive effects on the mind-body system and can increase well-being and support recovery from disease.

Yogic meditative practices were shown to have positive effects on the heart rate, blood pressure, and low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and decrease the levels of salivary cortisol, the stress hormone. These findings are consistent with a down regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, both of which are known to be over-activated by the stressful western lifestyle.

Now, a series of new studies on gene expression profiles in immune cells circulating in the blood are showing that yogic/meditative practices have profound effects at the molecular level.

Mind over body as revealed by gene expression profiles

The first study that used gene expression profiles to probe the effects of meditative practices was small but in-depth.

The neutrophils (one kind of white blood cells) of 5 Asian Qigong practitioners were compared with 6 healthy Asian controls [3]. The Qigong group had practiced for at least a year consisting of a cognitive component in addition to exercise that lasted 1 to 2 h daily. Gene expression profiles were examined with microarrays for about 12 000 genes. Among them 250 genes were consistently different between the Qigong and the control groups with 132 down-regulated and 118 up regulated. Among the differentially expressed genes, the down-regulated include genes related to the ubiquitin degradation pathway (for breaking down proteins), as well as genes encoding ribosomal proteins. Cellular stress response genes were generally down regulated in Qigong practitioners compared with controls, but the expression of two heat shock proteins were increased. Expression of genes related to immunity was also increased in the Qigong groups, such as interferon gamma (IFN-g) and IFN-related and IFN-regulated genes (involved in fighting viral infections).

In an in vitro assay, the neutrophils from Qigong practitioners had increased bacteriocidal activity. Furthermore, the lifespan of normal neutrophils was increased while that of inflammatory neutrophils was decreased through apoptosis.

A second study was particularly interesting. It evaluated gene expression changes triggered by the ‘relaxation response’ (RR), characterized by decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide and reduced psychological distress.

The practices were quite diverse, ranging from vipassana or insight meditation, mantra meditation, and transcendental meditation, to breath focus, Kripalu or Kundalini yoga, and repetitive prayer. The study included 19 long-term (average 9.4 years of practice) RR practitioners (group M) and 20 healthy controls tested at baseline (group N1) who underwent 8 weeks of training in guided relaxation techniques and tested again (group N2). Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC, all blood cells having a round nucleus) were isolated and global transcriptome (totality of transcripts) profiles were determined using microarrays that could probe 47 000 genes and gene variants.

A total of 2 209 genes were differentially expressed between Group M and N1: 1 275 up and 945 down-regulated. Between Groups M and N2, 1 504 genes were differentially expressed: 774 up- and 730 down-regulated. Between N1 and N2, 1 562 genes were differentially expressed: 874 up- and 687 down-regulated. Interestingly, 595 genes were differentially expressed specifically in Group M, suggesting that long term practitioners of RR gives a distinct expression profile. Similarly, 428 genes were shared between the short and long term RR groups (N2 and M), but not with the controls N1 group.

The type of genes differentially expressed suggested to the authors that gene expression changes in the M and N2 groups might indicate a greater capacity to respond to oxidative stress and associated detrimental effects. And it matters little which RR technique is practised.

The third study investigated changes in gene expression by Sudarshan Kriya  (a kind of yoga) and associated practice [5]. It included 42 practitioners and 42 healthy normal controls. RNA was isolated from PBMC and subjected to Reverse Transcription –PCR analysis with a focus on genes involved in oxidative stress, DNA damage, cell cycle control, aging and apoptosis. In parallel, the blood drawn was assayed for glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione levels.

Consistent with a previous study, glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase activities and glutathione levels were higher in practitioners compared with controls. Consistent with those findings, glutathione S-transferase mRNA was also significantly higher in practitioners compared with controls. Although not statistically significant, similar increases were found in the antioxidant genes Cu-Zn and Mn SOD (superoxide dismutase), glutathione perioxidase, and catalase.

In addition, expression of the anti-apoptotic gene COX-2 and stress response gene HSP-70 were significantly increased in the practitioners. Thus the authors suggested that the meditative practice might result in a better antioxidant status, at least in part, by changes in the expression of the relevant genes, which may translate to better response to environmental stress.

All three studies suggest that yogi meditative practice give rise to gene expression changes consistent with improved response to environmental stress: improved survival of immune cells, improved antioxidant status.

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