Back in April, I mentioned the belief among some folks that healthier gene expression patterns were a matter of thinking or believing or perceiving things in a special way. Anyway, I said I’d get back to the subject, and here I am!
After looking into it a bit more, it seems to me like epigenetics has two main groups of cheerleaders. There are the scientists and geeks like myself, and a second group made up of spiritualists or mysticists like Bruce Lipton. But no matter how much of it I read, I’m never quite sure what the mysticists find so interesting about epigenetics, nor whether they’re even talking about the same thing.
ERV over at Science Blogs is somewhat less charitable:
My god, epigenetics is a woo-magnet.
ERV doesn’t go into the reasons why this might be the case, but like quantum mechanics before it, metaphysicians seem positively smitten with epigenetics. Much of this flavor of cheerleading comes from Lipton himself, who I’d be remiss to neglect, sells books and hosts radio shows and otherwise generates income based on the premise that positive thinking will change your life, health, and so on.
It’s a nice thought, for sure. But why epigenetics? Here’s a sample that gives a little insight.
The exciting new science of epigenetics emphasizes that genes are controlled by the environment, and more importantly, by our perception of the environment. Epigenetics acknowledges that we are not victims, but masters, for we can change our environment or perceptions, and create up to 30,000 variations for each of our genes.
My best bet is that epigenetics appears to the uninitiated to completely overturn previous, deterministic science, while giving the impression that you can change things by thinking about them real hard.
Of course, neither premise is completely true. As anyone who’s manipulated the lac operon knows, environmental glucose and lactose change E. coli gene expression. And the list of expression-altering kinases and DNA-binding proteins is a mile long.
As for the other part–the notion that gene expression changes based on thought–that idea seems to come from an unsourced connection between DNA modification and psychological stress. Or as Susan Smalley of the Mindful Awareness Research Center puts it in the Huffington Post:
There is one really great study where a set of about 15 genes were shown to differ (in expression) as function of a type of meditation. Those genes are ones involved in the stress response. And I’m sure there will be more studies like that. What’s really cool about that, from my background in genetics, is that it illustrates that a mind state that we can self-induce can regulate gene expression – turn gene expression up or down.
The study in question appears to be this one from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. And it actually has pretty interesting results. In 39 test subjects practicing a “relaxation response,” 2209 genes were differentially expressed compared to 19 subjects who didn’t consciously relax this way.
Gene ontology and gene set enrichment analyses revealed significant alterations in cellular metabolism, oxidative phosphorylation, generation of reactive oxygen species and response to oxidative stress in long-term and short-term practitioners of daily RR practice that may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress.
But that’s really not a lot to go on, just yet. Pubmed, for example, contains exactly zero studies including the terms “epigenetic” and “meditation.” Many more studies with hundreds or thousands of subjects would really help.
And it’s going to take a whole lot more than that to confirm Steven and Michael Meloan’s assertion that this will somehow lead to “Evolution-On-Demand.” Personally, I’d like a few of those research dollars spent on studying the epigenetic benefits of watching late-night sci-fi instead.