Change the Genes and the Brain for the Better with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Scientists looked at how mindfulness practice affected genetic differences between one group of expert meditators compared with a control group of untrained meditators. “most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs.” – Perla Kaliman
There is an accumulating volume of research findings to demonstrate that mind-body therapies have highly beneficial effects on the health and well-being of humans. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises. Because of their proven benefits the application of these practices to relieving human suffering has skyrocketed.
It is clear that Mind-body therapies affect the physiology. In other words, the mind can alter the body. One way it can do that is by altering the nervous system. Meditation training has been shown to alter the nervous system, increasing the size and connectivity of structures associated with present moment awareness, higher level thinking, and regulation of emotions, while decreasing the size and connectivity of structures associated with mind wandering and self-referential thinking, known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). The brain is capable of changing and adapting in a process called neuroplasticity. As a result, the neural changes produced by meditation training become relatively permanent.
The mind can also affect the physiology through altering genetic processes. The genes dictate all of the chemical processes in our bodies including the immune system and the inflammatory response. In turn, the genes can affect our minds. In fact, the genes have been shown to affect an individual’s inherent emotions and level of mindfulness.
There has been a considerable amount of research over the last decade on the effects of mind-body therapies on the nervous system and gene expression. In today’s Research News article “The Embodied Mind: A Review on Functional Genomic and Neurological Correlates of Mind-Body Therapies.” See summary below. Muehsam and colleagues review and summarize these studies. They categorized the studies as either top-down, where mind-body therapies alter the physiology by altering attention, intention, and cognitive processes, or bottom-up, where the physical processes involved in mind-body therapies affect the nervous system. Hence, mind-body therapies act by altering the immune systems and the nervous system.
One of the primary actions of mind-body therapies is to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress which, in turn, affects wellness and well-being. Studies indicate that these therapies alter the response of the brain-hormone axis that results in the production of glucocorticoids and alters the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both of these effects alter gene expression, cellular aging, immune function, and healthy brain function. In addition, mind-body therapies can alter the immune systems inflammatory processes via action on the vagus nerve. This reduces the damage that can occur due to chronic stress producing chronic inflammation. Thus mind-body therapies act by eliminating or lessening the harmful effects of chronic stressors, thus allowing the body’s innate healing responses to be fully expressed.
The second major way mind-body practices impact the individual’s health and well-being is through neuromodulation. Mind-body practices alter the individual’s cognitive/affective state which have been shown to influence activity in brain regions including orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and somatosensory cortex. These practices alter the volume of brain tissue, its activity, and its connectivity with other brain regions and appear to produce relatively permanent changes in the brain via neuroplasticity. In addition, they decrease the size and connectivity of structures associated with mind wandering and self-referential thinking, known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). These changes, in turn, affect attention, learning, and emotion regulation, all of which are important for psychological health.
So, the published research literature reflects an increasing understanding of not only the beneficial effects of mind-body practices, but also the physiological processes and mechanisms though which these benefits occur. This produces a clear picture that mind-body practices act through the nervous and immune systems to improve the health and well-being of the practitioners.
“Mindfulness: a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress. It can be integrated into one’s religious or spiritual life, or practiced as a form of secular mental training. When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.” – Christina Congleton
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Muehsam D, Lutgendorf S, Mills PJ, Rickhi B, Chevalier G, Bat N, Chopra D, Gurfein B. The Embodied Mind: A Review on Functional Genomic and Neurological Correlates of Mind-Body Therapies. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Dec 22. pii: S0149-7634(16)30325-6. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.12.027. [Epub ahead of print] Review.
- Functional genomic and neurological correlates of mind-body practices are reviewed.
- EEG and Neuroimaging correlates of mind-body therapies and meditation are reviewed.
- Mechanisms of action by which mind-body practices influence health outcomes are discussed
A broad range of mind-body therapies (MBTs) are used by the public today, and a growing body of clinical and basic sciences research has resulted in evidence-based integration of many MBTs into clinical practice. Basic sciences research has identified some of the physiological correlates of MBT practices, leading to a better understanding of the processes by which emotional, cognitive and psychosocial factors can influence health outcomes and well-being. In particular, results from functional genomics and neuroimaging describe some of the processes involved in the mind-body connection and how these can influence health outcomes. Functional genomic and neurophysiological correlates of MBTs are reviewed, detailing studies showing changes in sympathetic nervous system activation of gene transcription factors involved in immune function and inflammation, electroencephalographic and neuroimaging studies on MBT practices, and persistent changes in neural function and morphology associated with these practices. While the broad diversity of study designs and MBTs studied presents a patchwork of results requiring further validation through replication and longitudinal studies, clear themes emerge for MBTs as immunomodulatory, with effects on leukocyte transcription and function related to inflammatory and innate immune responses, and neuromodulatory, with effects on brain function and morphology relevant for attention, learning, and emotion regulation. By detailing the potential mechanisms of action by which MBTs may influence health outcomes, the data generated by these studies have contributed significantly towards a better understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying MBTs.