A growing body of research shows that mindfulness meditation can alter neural, behavioral and biochemical processes. However, the mechanisms responsible for such clinically relevant effects remain elusive.
Here we explored the impact of a day of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation in experienced subjects (n = 19) on the expression of circadian, chromatin modulatory and inflammatory genes in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). In parallel, we analyzed a control group of subjects with no meditation experience who engaged in leisure activities in the same environment (n = 21). PBMC from all participants were obtained before (t1) and after (t2) the intervention (t2 − t1 = 8 h) and gene expression was analyzed using custom pathway focused quantitative-real time PCR assays. Both groups were also presented with the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST).
Core clock gene expression at baseline (t1) was similar between groups and their rhythmicity was not influenced in meditators by the intensive day of practice. Similarly, we found that all the epigenetic regulatory enzymes and inflammatory genes analyzed exhibited similar basal expression levels in the two groups. In contrast, after the brief intervention we detected reduced expression of histone deacetylase genes (HDAC 2, 3 and 9), alterations in global modification of histones (H4ac; H3K4me3) and decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes (RIPK2 and COX2) in meditators compared with controls. We found that the expression of RIPK2 and HDAC2 genes was associated with a faster cortisol recovery to the TSST in both groups.
The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.