Relaxation Response and Changes in Gene Expression

The Relaxation Response was described by Harvard University physician Herbert Benson in a 1975 best-selling book of the same name. The Relaxation Response or RR is the physiological opposite of the stress response, and Benson argued is as fundamental to our nature.

Now researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine in Boston have published a detailed analysis of genetic responses to RR, and have used sophisticated analytic techniques to make sense of what all the changes in gene expression mean. Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways PLOS One May 1,2013

As the authors point out:

The RR is elicited when an individual focuses on a word, sound, phrase, repetitive prayer, or movement, and disregards everyday thoughts [2]. These two steps break the train of everyday thinking. Millennia-old mind-body approaches that elicit the RR include: various forms of meditation (e.g., mindfulness meditation and transcendental meditation); different practices of yoga (e.g., Vipassana and Kundalini); Tai Chi; Qi Gong; progressive muscle relaxation; biofeedback; and breathing exercises [14]

The study focused on 2 groups of healthy subjects; those with no experience in RR techniques (who were studied at baseline and after 8 weeks of daily, 20 minutes a day meditation) and a group with more than 4 years experience in an RR technique. They looked at short term effects before during and immediately after a RR session as well as patterns of gene expression that persisted between sessions. The results were amazing!

Immediate and long-term changes were seen in gene expression in inexperienced and experienced meditators, but were larger among experienced meditators

Some genes were expressed more, others less

Immune response and telomere maintenance related pathways are affected among Long-term RR practitioners: GSEA

Telemores are the ends of chromosomes and are thought to protect chromosomes from damage much like the coated ends of shoelaces protect the shoelace from fraying. Barbara McClintock won the Noble Prize in Medicine for demonstrating stress shortens telomere length. Telomere length is thought to be a main determinant of longevity.

Upregulated Progressive changes induced by RR are linked to energy production in mitochondria: Systems Biology Analysis

The RR significantly affects multiple pathways through mitochondrial signaling that may promote cellular and systemic adaptive plasticity responses. In essence these adaptive responses become markers of what might be called mitochondrial resiliency or mitochondrial reserve capacity. The gene expression data indicate the RR specifically upregulates energy production of ATP through the ATP synthase electron transport complex. This might result in an enhanced mitochondrial reserve providing the capacity to meet the metabolic energy demands required to buffer against oxidative stress that emerges in many stress related diseases. Depending on variables such as genetic endowment and epigenetic interactions with micro- and macro-environmental circumstances, different mitochondria will have variable capacities to dampen the pathogenic effects of oxidative stress, and this has sometimes been referred to as differential mitochondrial reserve capacity [70]. When cells experience severe oxidative stress through increased cellular metabolic demands, there is a loss of mitochondrial reserve capacity contributing to a fall in mitochondrial resiliency, which may be a major contributor in disease vulnerability.


Upregulated Long-term changes induced by RR are linked to telomerase stability and maintenance: Systems Biology Analysis

Progressive and Long-term Downregulated gene expression changes induced by RR are linked to alteration of NF-κB-dependent pathways: Systems Biology Analysis

NF-kB is a major pathway for signaling inflammation and a control point in the inflammation cascade. Chronic Inflammation is a major issue for conditions as diverse as heart attack, stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease.

RR affected pathways are correlated with Fractional exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO) levels : Correlation Analysis

Nitric Oxide is a molecule that has major effects on blood pressure and the health of the endothelium, or lining of blood vessels. It can signal changes over short distances very quickly.

Citation: Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang B-H, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, et al. (2013) Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62817. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817

Thanks for reading,


This entry was posted in genomics, meditation, mindfulness, neuroscience, yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Relaxation Response and Changes in Gene Expression

  1. Sara says:

    Appreciate your posts … I am a yogi who works as a human service fundraiser. I am eager to find ways to bring the benefit of mindful movement to our clients and consumers. Keep it up!!

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