A collaborative team of researchers from the US, Spain, and France in December 2013 the first evidence of specific molecular changes at a genetic level following a period of 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.
The study compared effects of a single day of strong mindfulness practice between a group of experienced meditators and a group of untrained subjects who engaged in quiet but non-meditative activities. After an intense day of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a dramatic range of genetic and molecular changes.
Meditation was found to change levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes which in turn connected with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
Although one group were experienced in meditation, the researchers were surprised to find that 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 intensive mindfulness session specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.
In the past, mindfulness-based training has been shown to have beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders. Meditation is supported 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 benefits of meditation.
The degree to which some of these genes were down-regulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test which involved making mental calculations, speaking in public and performing other tasks in front of an audience.
Another study from April 2011 found that meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain. The findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
At the time, Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., 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, twenty minute classes to learn a meditation skills known as focused attention.- It’s a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of preoccupying 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.
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.
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has incredible potential for clinical use because, little training was required to produce 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.
Make Mindfulness Training a Part of Your Daily Routine.