9 December 2013

Gene expression altered with meditation

by Will Parker

Previous studies have shown that meditation can trigger changes in the brain and body but the biological mechanism for these effects has remained a mystery. Now, in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers are reporting the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of meditation.

The new work, by researchers in the U.S., Spain, and France, investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness meditation in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities.

Study author Richard J. Davidson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) said that after eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditation group showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes.

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. Interestingly, the genes affected are currently the targets of a number of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs.

Davidson said that, importantly, 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," he notes.

The key finding, he adds, 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.

"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," Davidson says. "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."

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Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison