From Medical News today:
Relaxation Response Can Influence Expression
Of Stress-Related Genes
How could a single, nonpharmacological intervention
help patients deal with disorders ranging from high
blood pressure, to pain syndromes, to infertility,
to rheumatoid arthritis? That question may have been
answered by a study finding that eliciting the
relaxation response - a physiologic state of deep rest
- influences the activation patterns of genes associated
with the body's response to stress. The collaborative
investigation by members of the Benson-Henry Institute
for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General
Hospital (MGH) and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel
Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) appears in the
open-access journal PLoS One.
"For hundreds of years Western medicine has looked
at mind and body as totally separate entities, to the
point where saying something 'is all in your head'
implied that it was imaginary," says Herbert Benson, MD,
director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and
co-senior author of the PloS One report. "Now we've
found how changing the activity of the mind can alter
the way basic genetic instructions are implemented."
Towia Libermann, PhD, director of the BIDMC Genomics
Center and the report's co-senior author, adds,
"This is the first comprehensive study of how the
mind can affect gene expression, linking what has
been looked on as a 'soft' science with the 'hard'
science of genomics. It is also important because
of its focus on gene expression in healthy individuals,
rather than in disease states."
More than 35 years ago Benson first described the
relaxation response, which can be elicited by practices
including meditation, deep breathing and prayer; and
his team has pioneered the field of mind/body medicine.
Over the years, studies in many peer-reviewed journals
documented how the relaxation response not only
alleviates symptoms of psychological disorders such
as anxiety but also affects physiologic factors such
as heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen consumption and
brain activity. While it became evident that the
relaxation response was the opposite of the well
documented fight-or-flight response, the mechanism
underlying these effects was still unknown.
The current study was designed to investigate if
changes in gene expression - whether specific genes
are activated or repressed - were behind the
wide-ranging effects of the relaxation response. The
first phase compared gene expression patterns of 19
long-term practitioners of different relaxation
response techniques with those of 19 individuals who
had never engaged in such practices. Those control
participants then went through an 8-week training
program to investigate whether initiating relaxation
response practice would change gene expression over time.
Both phases of the study indicated that the
relaxation response alters the expression of genes
involved with processes such as inflammation, programmed
cell death and how the body handles free radicals -
molecules produced by normal metabolism that, if not
appropriately neutralized, can damage cells and tissues.
To validate those results, both phases were repeated
in 6 different relaxation response practitioners and
5 non-practitioners, resulting in significantly similar
changes in gene expression.
Jeffery Dusek, PhD, co-lead author of the study notes,
"Changes in the activation of these same genes have
previously been seen in conditions such as post-traumatic
stress disorder; but the relaxation-response-associated
changes were the opposite of stress-associated changes
and were much more pronounced in the long-term
practitioners." Formerly with the Benson-Henry Institute,
Dusek is now at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
Benson explains, "People have been using these
culturally determined mind/body techniques for millenia.
We found that no matter which particular technique
is used - different forms of meditation and yoga,
breath focus, or repetitive prayer - the mechanism
involved is the same. Now we need to see if similar
changes occur in patients who use the relaxation
response to help treat stress-related disorders, and
those studies are underway now."
Libermann notes that the sensitive genomic analyses
conducted in this study are at the cutting edge of
efforts to unravel the genetic aspects of complex
disorders. "There are a lot of differences in gene
expression between one healthy person and another,
so it is challenging to analyze the kinds of
subtle changes we are seeing and identify what
changes are significant and what are just background
noise. Our approach uses the latest bioinformatics
tools to identify potential gene functions,
generating hypotheses that can then be tested in
laboratory or clinical studies."
Benson is the Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate
Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School,
where Libermann is an associate professor of
Medicine. Hasan Otu, PhD, of BIDMC Genomics Center
is co-lead author of the PloS One study. Additional
co-authors are Ann Wohlhueter, Benson-Henry
Institute; and Manoj Bhasin, PhD, Luiz Zerbini, PhD,
and Marie Joseph, BIDMC. The study was supported by
grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
Massachusetts General Hospital, established in 1811,
is the original and largest teaching hospital of
Harvard Medical School. The MGH conducts the largest
hospital-based research program in the United States,
with an annual research budget of more than $500
million and major research centers in AIDS,
cardiovascular research, cancer, computational and
integrative biology, cutaneous biology, human
genetics, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders,
regenerative medicine, systems biology, transplantation
biology and photomedicine.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a patient
care, teaching and research affiliate of Harvard Medical
School and consistently ranks in the top four in
National Institutes of Health funding among independent
hospitals nationwide. BIDMC is a clinical partner of the
Joslin Diabetes Center and is a research partner of
the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. BIDMC is the
official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.
Massachusetts General Hospital