The big idea for the day comes from Sharon Begley, who does the regular "Lab Notes" at Newsweek:
we have now moved beyond studies showingthat mental training alters the structure and function of the brain to studies showing that it alters the structure and function of our genes.
It's by now old news to suggest that we have plastic minds, brains that can physically change in response to our thoughts. Monks can quite literally grow their compassion centers. And in one sense, as Jonah Lehrer points out in a recent article, this plasticity shouldn't come as too big a shock. That's what thoughts do - move matter.
What's more recent is the idea that the mind can also determine whether genes express themselves.
Saying that "merely reading what genes a person has is so 20th century," Begley references a new study published in the peer-reviewed open science research database, PLoS ONE, which describes how the "stress response," which has been implicated in disease development, has a good twin called the "relaxation response" that can have a direct bearing on certain diseases. By cultivating a relaxed mind and measuring the results in volunteers, research has determined that individuals can exercise some control over what genetic instructions are executed. Begley:
By “mind,” [the researchers behind the study] mean mental practices such as meditation and prayer, which are among the techniques used by the 19 long-term practitioners of the relaxation response who were studied, along with 19 volunteers who had never engaged in such practices. After the latter went through eight weeks of training, the scientists compared before-and-after patterns of gene expression, finding that mental training alters the expression of genes involved in inflammation, in the form of cell suicide called apoptosis (which can keep damaged cells from forming cancers), and in how the body handles damaging free radicals.