In a groundbreaking discovery, a collaborative team of researchers from Wisconsin, Spain, and France reported in December 2013 the first evidence of specific molecular changes at a genetic level following a period of mindfulness meditation.
"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.
The study compared the effects of a single day of intensive mindfulness practice between a group of experienced meditators and a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After an intensive day of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a dramatic range of genetic and molecular differences.
Meditation was found to alter levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation. "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 in Spain, where the molecular analyses were conducted.
Although one group were experienced meditators, the researchers were surprised to find that there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the beginning 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 intensive mindfulness session specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.
In past studies, mindfulness-based training has been shown to have beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders. Meditation is endorsed by the American Heart Association as an effective way to lower your risk for heart disease which is the leading cause of death in the United States. The new results provide a possible explanation for the biological mechanism behind the therapeutic benefits of meditation.
The results of this new study 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.
The degree to which some of these genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test which involved making mental calculations, public speaking, and performing other impromptu tasks in front of an audience and video camera.
Meditation Produces Powerful Pain-Relief
At the time, Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center said, "This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation."
Zeidan said, "We found a big effect—about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent."
For the study, 15 healthy volunteers who had never meditated attended four, 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique known as focused attention. Focused attention is a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions.
During brain scans, a pain-inducing heat device was placed on the participants' right legs. This device heated a small area of their skin to 120° Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find painful, over a 5-minute period. "The scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant's pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent," Zeidan said.
At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, a brain area that is involved in creating the feeling of the locatin and intensity of a painful stimulus. The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. However, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this pain-processing region could not be detected.
The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex. "These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body," said Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.
Coghill added, "Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing."
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has incredible potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects. "This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications," Zeidan concluded.
Conclusion: Make Mindfulness Training a Part of Your Daily Routine
I know the incredible benefits of mindfulness meditation from first hand experience. As a student at Hampshire College in the 1980s, I grew dreadlocks and got heavily into meditation and yoga. I traveled to India a few times and spent a lot of time meditating in ashrams.
Later in my life, when I became an ultra-endurance athlete, the time I had spent meditating allowed me to create a state of zen-like focus and do things like break a Guinness World Record running 153.76-miles on a treadmill in 24 hours and to win 3-triple Ironman triathlons (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run done nonstop). Although I am retired from athletic competition, I still try to do some type of mindfulness meditation most days of the week.
Consistent mindfulness training can create a domino-effect that will improve your well-being at a genetic and neurobiological level. However—as with any type of physical or mental exercise—it appears that the long-term benefits of meditation depend on regular practice.
You don’t have to become a Buddhist monk or live in an ashram to reap the benefits of meditation. Try to find simple ways to make 10-20 minutes of mindfulness a part of your daily routine. This will allow you to reap the benefits of meditation in a way that fits your personality and lifestyle.
It is worth noting that other recent studies have found that spending time daydreaming, mind wandering and not practicing mindfulness during the day also has a wide range of benefits. The recipe for optimizing brain function and well-being requires a broad spectrum of daily ingredients, there isn't one silver bullet that guarantees a sound mind in a sound body for a lifespan.
The new study by Richard J. Davidson and colleagues wasn’t 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. This outcome provides proof that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome, according to the researchers.
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.
Perla Kaliman concluded, "The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions."
If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts: