No, we are not venturing into a science fiction story where the power of the mind can re-write your DNA. The thing to remember is that genes don’t just sit there, they express themselves – they turn on and off to create proteins, such a C-reactive protein, which contributes to stress and depression. If we have high levels of C-reactive protein, we are at risk for depression, so if we can reduce the protein, we can reduce our risk. Not too surprisingly given the theme of my Mondays, mindfulness might be a key.
Senior citizens interested in joining a scientific study on mindfulness were either enrolled in 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction workshop or placed on a waitlist (they would get their chance to do MBSR later, but for now just completed the study part as a control group). The MBSR training reduced senior citizens’ loneliness, according to their answers on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. More importantly, the training reduced the levels of several key proteins in the blood stream. The biggest change was in NF-kB, a protein that is thought to be the main pathway for loneliness harming the immune system, but there was also a small (not quite statistically significant) drop in C-reactive protein, and hopefully in their depression risk as well.
I’ll leave debates about the precise nature of how mindfulness influences gene expression to the biologists. It probably only helps if the training actually makes you feel less lonely, although the researchers didn’t try to see if the MBSR participants who had the biggest drop in loneliness also had the biggest drop in proteins to back that idea up. I just think it’s cool that mindfulness can make a difference in your immune system as well as your brain – something that might be particularly important as we learn more about how the immune system affects our mental health.
Creswell, J., Irwin, M., Burklund, L., Lieberman, M., Arevalo, J., Ma, J., Breen, E., & Cole, S. (2012). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 26 (7), 1095-1101 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.07.006