Meditation Changes Gene Expression, Say Psychologists
    By News Staff | December 9th 2013 11:00 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Some papers say that meditation can have beneficial health effects, and that makes sense, but a new paper claiming evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation is likely the first of its kind.

    The scholars 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. 

    "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," says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    "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 (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.

    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.

    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."

     Published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.


    I wonder if nobody ever notices what is completely wrong with all those "meditation changes this or that" stories. The emperor is naked. This stuff never ever complies to the minimal standards of science: there is no adequate control group! I this were done right, there had to be a double blind placebo control group. To put it simple, you must control the meditation group with a control group WHICH HAS THE SAME EXPECTATIONS! If you do not do it this way, your results are shit! Meditation is shit!

    "If you do not do it this way, your results are shit! Meditation is shit!"

    This kind of 'statement' certainly bring credibility to your argument...


    Imagine "big pharma" testing new drugs in this sloppy way: Not comparing the drugs with a control that gives the same amount of suggestion but with some neutral task without any suggestion. This would not only be called shit, this would be litigated.

    John Hasenkam
    Imagine "big pharma" testing new drugs in this sloppy way:

    What do you mean "imagine". Big Pharma has been found guilty of incredibly lax standards, hiding side effects, promoting dangerous off label use, and has received huge fines over recent years. 

    Why do the gene expression changes even surprise you? Even regular exercise induces cerebral gene expression changes. Of course most of the meditation studies are shit, so much of psychology and psychiatry is shit. What's the biggest oxymoron in biomedicine? "biological psychiatry". 
    There are instances, sure, but at least in the US it is heavily regulated, new drugs cost billions of dollars and the failure rate is about 95%. If we continue to demonize drug companies and the government has to get into that business, even something like an antibiotic will take 30 years and cost a trillion dollars. And then they will work like
    The gene expression changes absolutely do not surprise me. With this kind of non-control group you can "prove" everything. What surprises me is that our science writing colleagues are constantly trumpeting these stories about how unimaginably wonderful meditation is and what it all does to the body and the mind. Never doing a quality control and telling readers what is foul with these studies. I do not know if "big pharma" often fails to do the right thing; I know science writing does. The principles of evidence based medicine should be known!

    John Hasenkam
    It happens all the time in psychology and psychiatry Rolf. Big problem. Remember the low serotonin - depression jazz? That arose from some shoddy Big Pharma studies and somehow became entrenched in the psychiatric community. Or how about "self-esteem"? Long since demolished by  Baumeister et al 2002 yet still being peddled. Now we have positive psychology and that emotional freedom technique psychobabble. 
    Now the new antidepressant on the block is valdoxan, a melatonin 1 receptor agonist. Next to useless and worse quite dangerous with liver and cardiac toxicity implicated. Only last week I noted 3 abstracts stating the drug should not be prescribed. Yet it is on the market and a psychiatrist friend of mine told me that the CEO of the company who manufactures this drug is already facing serious charges. 

    Buddhists have known for thousands of years that for some people with mental illness meditation is potentially very dangerous. Smart Buddhists know that they should not allow people with certain mental health issues to practice meditation. Seems that psychologists are not as smart. Meditation does have some value for people, I tried it in my youth and found it very beneficial but then stopped. As one Buddhist master commented: meditation is the canoe to cross the lake of enlightenment. Once you've crossed the lake you no longer need the canoe. 

    Evidence based medicine? Long way to go yet.