Washington, July 2 : A collaborative study 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) casts light on how the relaxation response, a physiologic state of deep rest, enables patients to deal with disorders like high blood pressure, pain syndromes, infertility, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.
The study appearing in the open-access journal PLoS One suggests that works by influencing the activation pattern of genes associated with the body's response to stress.
"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. Now we've found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented," says Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute.
Dr. Towia Libermann, 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."
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.
However, the mechanism underlying such effects remained unknown to date.
The researchers said that they designed the current study to determine whether changes in the expression of specific genes were behind the wide-ranging effects of the relaxation response.
In the first phase of the study, gene expression patterns of 19 long-term practitioners of different relaxation response techniques were compared with those of 19 individuals who had never engaged in such practices.
In the second phase of the study, the control participants went through an eight-week training program to investigate whether initiating relaxation response practice could 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.
The researchers repeated both phases in six different relaxation response practitioners and five non-practitioners to validate their findings, and observed significantly similar changes in gene expression.
"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," said Dr. Jeffery Dusek co-lead author of the study.
Benson said: "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 said that the sensitive genomic analyses conducted in the study were 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," added the researcher.