Studying Yoga’s Effect On Genes

A Harvard Medical School psychiatrist investigates the impact of yoga and meditation on gene expression related to stress and immunity through a new NIH-funded study.

Every yoga student knows that regular practice soothes nerves, wards off stress, and improves both mental and physical health. Many recent studies have aimed at scientifically proving what we all already know, but now technology is beginning to show exactly why yoga and meditation has so many profound benefits.

A five-year study led by Harvard Medical School psychologist John Denninger is using genomics (studying the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes) and neuroimaging (the production of images of the structure and activity of the brain) to measure physiological changes that happen when participants practice mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation.

“There is a true biological effect,” Denninger told Bloomberg. “The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just the brain.”

The study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is a follow-up to a study Denninger released in May, which found that mind-body techniques can actually switch on and off some genes related to stress and immunity. For this study, 210 participants with high levels of chronic stress have been split into three groups, with one group practicing Kundalini yoga (chosen for its emphasis on meditation), the second just meditating, and the third listening to stress education audiobooks for 20 minutes daily, for two months. Researchers will measure the impact on their genes and study their neuroimaging for changes throughout the study interventions and in three follow-up sessions.

The goals of this study, according to the briefing at the NIH, is to “provide novel and important information regarding the most reliable, accurate and cost-effective outcome measures and the optimum method of their administration in mind-body medicine research protocols. The results of this study will also provide new and valuable information on the role and potential efficacy of the relatively new genomic expression outcome measure and its relationship to previously used outcome measures in mind-body medicine. Finally, this study will determine how consistent all of these measures are between a purely cognitive RR-based mind-body intervention (meditation) and another that includes a physical component (yoga) and whether there are subtle differences between them in these outcome measures.”