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Randomized Controlled Trial
. 2016 Aug 30;6(8):e880.
doi: 10.1038/tp.2016.164.

Meditation and Vacation Effects Have an Impact on Disease-Associated Molecular Phenotypes

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Free PMC article
Randomized Controlled Trial

Meditation and Vacation Effects Have an Impact on Disease-Associated Molecular Phenotypes

E S Epel et al. Transl Psychiatry. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

Meditation is becoming increasingly practiced, especially for stress-related medical conditions. Meditation may improve cellular health; however, studies have not separated out effects of meditation from vacation-like effects in a residential randomized controlled trial. We recruited healthy women non-meditators to live at a resort for 6 days and randomized to either meditation retreat or relaxing on-site, with both groups compared with 'regular meditators' already enrolled in the retreat. Blood drawn at baseline and post intervention was assessed for transcriptome-wide expression patterns and aging-related biomarkers. Highly significant gene expression changes were detected across all groups (the 'vacation effect') that could accurately predict (96% accuracy) between baseline and post-intervention states and were characterized by improved regulation of stress response, immune function and amyloid beta (Aβ) metabolism. Although a smaller set of genes was affected, regular meditators showed post-intervention differences in a gene network characterized by lower regulation of protein synthesis and viral genome activity. Changes in well-being were assessed post intervention relative to baseline, as well as 1 and 10 months later. All groups showed equivalently large immediate post-intervention improvements in well-being, but novice meditators showed greater maintenance of lower distress over time compared with those in the vacation arm. Regular meditators showed a trend toward increased telomerase activity compared with randomized women, who showed increased plasma Aβ42/Aβ40 ratios and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) levels. This highly controlled residential study showed large salutary changes in gene expression networks due to the vacation effect, common to all groups. For those already trained in the practice of meditation, a retreat appears to provide additional benefits to cellular health beyond the vacation effect.

Conflict of interest statement

JL is a minor shareholder (<$10 K) in Telomere Diagnostics, a telomere measurement company that had no role in the current research. PYL is an employee of Capella Biosciences (a computational pharmaceutical company). ESE, EES and RET were past awardees of the Chopra Foundation's Rustrum Roy Award. The remaining authors declare no conflict of interest.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
Study flow, including enrollment, randomization and retention, in our meditation study. Of the 165 women screened, 122 (73.9%) were eligible, and 102 (84%) of those eligible were interested and enrolled on a first come first serve basis. After the community women were randomly assigned to groups, and before arriving on site, there were six drop outs: four from Vacation and two from Meditation Groups. After arriving at the resort and before the retreat began, two from the Regular Meditator Group opted out of the study. After the retreat began, two participants dropped out, one from the Regular and one from Novice meditator groups.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Characterizing molecular changes in response to vacation and meditation. (a) Heatmap of the top differentially expressed genes between baseline and follow-up (‘vacation' effect) after two-way hierarchical clustering. The expression values depicted in the heatmap were converted to Z-scores and ordered in the sample and gene dimensions according to the dendograms produced by the clustering procedure. Cyan (magenta) indicates genes that are down- (up) regulated at the baseline time point relative to the follow-up time point, with the intensity indicating the significance of the Z-score. The color band to the right of the heatmap indicates the mean difference in expression (DE) between the baseline and post-intervention time points for each of the differentially expressed genes. Red (cyan) indicates down- (up) regulation at the post-intervention time point compared with baseline. The module colors indicate the coexpression modules to which the genes belong, with the odds ratio and P-value given for each module reflecting the overall enrichment for differentially regulated genes in the module. The pathway enrichment heatmap indicates the –log10 of the P-value for pathways enriched in the indicated coexpression module. Brighter cyan (magenta) indicates larger –log10 P-values for pathways that are down- (up) regulated. (b) Similar to a but with genes differentially expressed between regular meditators with novices and the vacation group at the follow-up time point.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Identifying network structures in a blood Bayesian network reflecting vacation and meditation effects. (a) The red, brown, pink and purple coexpression network modules enriched for the vacation signature were projected on a blood Bayesian network. The subnetwork depicted is the largest connected subgraph comprising nodes within a path length of one of the projected nodes. The pink nodes represent genes in the vacation signature (2.7-fold enriched; Fisher exact test (FET) P=5.6e−19), green nodes are genes annotated as Alzheimer's disease genes (2.3-fold enriched; FET=0.012) and orange nodes are genes annotated as telomere genes. (b) Network constructed as in a using genes from the salmon, tan, blue and black modules all enriched for genes in the meditation signature. The blue nodes represent meditation signature genes (2.4-fold enriched; FET P=6.5e−5) and the orange nodes represent genes annotated as telomere genes (1.7-fold enriched; FET P=0.045). Oversized nodes with red borders are discussed in the main text.

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