Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and environments turn the genes of our fixed DNA “on” or “off” to produce proteins and so alter cellular activity. NF-κB (Nuclear Factor kappa B) refers to a family of naturally occurring protein transcription factors that activate DNA to regulate our immune cells.
In response to stress in humans and other animals, there is often increased NF-κB activity that functions as an evolved inflammatory response to address the physical injury often accompanying stress.
Prior research shows that mindfulness training can down-regulate pro-inflammatory gene expression in samples experiencing elevated stress including lonely older adults, breast cancer survivors, and people with sleep disorders.
Dutcher et al. [Brain, Behavior, and Immunity] conducted a randomized controlled trial to test whether mindfulness training down-regulates pro-inflammatory gene expression in elevated stress adults who lack pre-existing medical conditions.
The researchers randomly assigned 100 generally healthy call-center customer service employees (average age= 34 years; 67% female; 64% Caucasian) who reported elevated subjective levels of stress to a mindfulness training or active control condition.
Participants listened to 10-20-minute daily audio lessons on their smartphones across 30 days. Compliance was high, with each groups completing 97% of their smartphone assignments.
The mindfulness group listened to audio content of the Headspace app basics program that offers guided mindful awareness practices. The control group listened to audio content for a similar amount of time that focused on problem solving, planning, analytic thinking, self-reflection, and guided imagery. This comparator was intended to also reduce levels of perceived stress.
Participants completed a perceived stress scale and donated blood samples at baseline and one-week post-intervention. RNA was extracted from blood samples and analyzed for gene expression patterns.
The results showed both the mindfulness group (d = 0.87) and the active control group (d = 0.86) showed significant large-sized reductions in subjectively reported stress. There was no significant between-group difference.
The mindfulness group showed a greater reduction in gene activation in the pro-inflammatory NF-κB pathway than did controls (d = -0.30). The effect size for the difference in gene activation between groups was small.
This human subjects trial showed both mindfulness training and psychoeducation apps reduce subjectively reported stress levels in people who are generally healthy and employed yet with elevated stress. Only the mindfulness group showed a significant reduction in pro-inflammatory gene expression activity. This finding is potentially important because elevated inflammation is associated with a variety of physical and mental illnesses.
The study is limited by its lack of long-term follow-up as well as a lack of a waitlist control to account for extraneous factors influencing genomic activity.
Dutcher, J. M., Cole, S. W., Williams, A. C., & Creswell, J. D. (2022). Smartphone mindfulness meditation training reduces Pro-inflammatory gene expression in stressed adults: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 103, 171–177.
Link to study