The Other Epigenetics Enthusiasts – the Meditators, et al.

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.

(Flickr user GlenBledsoe’s image of Magician Pop Haydn used under a Creative Commons license.)

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8 Responses to The Other Epigenetics Enthusiasts – the Meditators, et al.

  1. Marien says:

    Last phrase is wonderful ;D

    However, I think it would be worth to “do the geek” in the field of the relationship between epigenetics and psychology in general, not only “meditation” (this seems to be a good way to earn money anyway hahaha).

    All the stuff you cite seems to be simply (desirable?) hipothesis, isnt it?

    How about to study anxiety&epig, or depression&epig and so on?, Some time ago a Spanish expert (Manel Esteller) answer that “actually there is no scientific framework to do it seriously”, but I think we should try to create it, now.


    I liked this post a lot. Thanks and sorry if my English isnt improved

  2. Dave says:

    I think the wish for epigenetics to be modifiable via “Secret-like” wishful thinking is due to humans so wanting to observe teleology and then be able to direct it.

    Epigenetics is not well understood by most scientists, and very little by non-scientists. So there are plenty of gaps to fill in with teleological woo, wishful thinking and outright false ideas.

    There can’t be a specific epigenetic effect of watching late night sci-fi because humans have not been watching late night sci-fi for enough generations for watching late night sci-fi to have sufficient differential effects on reproductive success of offspring for mechanisms to epigenetically program germ cells to exhibit that epigenetic programming of offspring to happen.

    There is lots of epigenetics in psychological stuff, mostly in stress responses. Exposure to stress in utero increases the incidence of autism. Disruptions in the folate pathway which is involved in one-carbon metabolism by low folate and by some teratogens also increases the incidence of autism. Rett Syndrome is caused by deletion of MeCP2 and is an autism spectrum disorder.

    Different stressors in utero do cause different adult phenotypes (autism, schizophrenia, cycle of violence). Presumably some of that is due (in part) to epigenetic programming of the CNS during differentiation. Other health effects are likely contributed to by epigenetic programming of somatic cells in utero and in early childhood, for example as in the hygiene hypothesis and allergies.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Dave — I hadn’t really considered teleology, that human tendency to want to see purpose in everything. On a cursory look, I didn’t see a whole lot of it in Lipton and his cohort, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. There’s at least a variation on the concept in a lot of such writings. (Here’s a fun post by Science Blogs’ Orac that somehow I missed before.) Anyway, when say, Deepak Chopra talks about epigenetics, his goal seems to be placing humans as the prime actors in an otherwise typical teleology.

      As for the the late-night sci-fi bit, I’d meant it only as a joke, but now I’m hoping it works as a means of combating stress. So I’m going to hold out for that one, but I doubt I’ll agitate for any research dollars.

  3. Marien says:

    But I wouldnt say “psychological stuff” to Dave’s examples, but good examples of medical stuff instead. I was refering to relations between, for instance, personality variables and epigenetic marks on genes decoding the immune system. This would be interesting, but at the moment there is no scientific framework to do it seriously…

    • Dave says:

      Marien, exposure to psychogenic maternal stress in utero does change the adult phenotype.

      I think the only way to look at it is through physiology and how physiology triggers and mediates the epigenetic programming of DNA.

    • Chris says:

      Hiya Marien — Thanks for stopping by again! I’m not sure what Manel Esteller meant concerning a framework for studying the epigenetics of psychology, but if you’ve got a recent link, I’d be interested to look into it. It could just be that the subject is something that scientists are just starting to really understand.

      Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s a review of the first few bits of evidence hinting at epigenetic contributions to schizophrenia. As I’m sure you know, there’s a lot more work left to do!

  4. Pingback: ‘Intelligent Design’ Crowd Projecting onto Epigenetics Too? | Epigenetics Experts Blog

  5. Pingback: Situational Stress Makes Short-Term Epigenetic Changes | Epigenetics Experts Blog

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