In the world of psychotherapy and biopsychology, mindfulness has experienced a tremendous amount of attention recently — mostly because in many of the challenges of the mind it is put up against, mindfulness has fared very well — performing as well as (or better than) drug therapies in some cases.
However, for physicians and patients to fully unlock the potential power for mindfulness as a way to improve health, a biological mechanism for its efficacy is needed. One possible theory that researchers are exploring is that mindfulness affects a person’s epigenetics.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a type of meditation which is undertaken by — quite simply — being ‘mindful’ of thoughts and feelings. Whereas many types of psychotherapy seek to have patients ‘change’ or reshape their thoughts or thinking patterns, mindfulness seeks to have people be aware that certain thoughts are occurring — and then (critically): to not judge them. Oftentimes as the theory goes, when we are faced with our own thoughts that affect us in negatively emotional ways, these thoughts or thinking patterns become associated with negative emotions. That is, we subconsciously realize we’re having these thoughts, dread that we’re having them, and work to find a cognitive way out.
Unfortunately for psychotherapy over many decades, the reality is that ‘out-thinking’ oneself is either very difficult or impossible, depending on the patient you talk to. So the critical difference with mindfulness is that the thoughts that a person is having are just to be observed, and to not tag them with negative connotations. After all, we have thousands of thoughts per hour every day, and most of the time they are cognitive fragments — simple firing or mis-firing of neurons, daydreams, partial ideas, and so on. So to try to judge them — or even worse for rehabilitation — to punish oneself because of having certain thoughts is demonstrably not what works in healing.
Previous research has shown physiological changes in the brainwave patterns of those who are using mindfulness — an indirect way to see ‘into’ the brain and its processing regimens. Perhaps as neural pattern imagery gets more technologically-advanced, it will be possible to actually resolve images of certain thoughts, but for now we have no other ways of quantitatively or qualitatively inferring what thinking patterns are occurring.
New research is taking the concept down to another level: Scientists looked at how mindfulness practice affected genetic differences between one group of expert meditators compared with a control group of untrained meditators. Perla Kaliman, researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain explained, “most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs.”
The mindfulness group showed reduced activity of certain genes that are correlated with inflammation. These genes are the pro-inflammatory RIPK2 and COX2 (see here for more on inhibition of RIPK2 and COX2). This is not new, as previous work has shown mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies.
But interestingly, researchers are now finding that mindfulness may also affect the activity of HDAC genes (histone deacetylase) which code for proteins that are involved with epigenetic modifications. Epigenetics describes how cells can regulate gene activity without changing the sequence of a gene, this is often done by enzymes that add or subtract small molecules to the DNA. The process is also thought to be influenced heavily by the environment and is potentially heritable.
HDAC genes are involved with silencing (i.e. decreasing activity) of genes. This process is known to be crucial for proper cell differentiation and development as well as environmental adaptations. The findings that mindfulness can cause epigenetic changes in the genome speaks to a potential biological mechanism for the efficacy of mindfulness. The responses seen are interpreted by the researchers as allowing the practitioners to be more adaptable to stress, among other things.
These recent results provide a possible biological mechanism for the therapeutic effects underlying mindfulness practice. With stress, diet, and exercising also having demonstrated epigenetic effects, this new research is further evidence that the effect of the mind can also impact genetic expression.
Ben Locwin, PhD, MBA, MS, is a contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project and is an author of a wide variety of scientific articles for books and magazines. He is an expert contact for the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), a committee member of the American Statistical Association (ASA), and also a consultant for many industries including biological sciences, pharmaceutical, psychological, and academic. Follow him at @BenLocwin.