For over a thousand years, mind-body techniques like yoga have been practiced by devoted followers as a means of maintaining physical and mental well being. In its most traditional form, yoga involved a spiritual aspect that had its basis in meditation and the study of its own metaphysics. In more recent times, Western cultures have adapted the physical aspects of mind-body techniques solely as a means of exercise.
Mind-body practitioners have long extolled the physical and mental benefits, ranging from everyday aches and pains to fighting cancer. Conclusive evidence for the latter is still lacking but the positive influence of yoga is generally accepted.
Ivana Buric, a researcher at Coventry University, has explored the link between mind-body techniques and changes in the human body. Her latest work investigates how gene expression is affected by performing mind-body exercises.
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: First let’s start with some background. How does emotional stress translate into actual physical damage?
IVANA BURIC: When we perceive something as a threat, no matter if it is an actual physical threat like a bear or a psychological threat like the possibility of losing a loved one, brain regions that are associated with pain will get activated first. That signal will get further transported to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. SNS produces epinephrine and norepinephrine , which have an inflammatory effects. HPA axis produces glucocorticoids (most notably cortisol), which have anti-inflammatory effects. Therefore, this system is in balance. However, during chronic stress, this system gets imbalanced and the brain becomes insensitive to the anti-inflammatory effects of glucocorticoids. Thus inflammation persists.
SI: Where does nuclear factor kappa B come from and what effect does it have on cytokines?
IB: The production of epinephrine and norepinehrine activates the production of molecules called transcription factors (mainly NF-kB) that then bind to and activate pro-inflammatory genes and translate them into proteins cytokines.
SI: Can you discuss your study and what you specifically set out to investigate? What did you find?
IB: We wanted to examine how mind-body techniques (MBI) change the expression of our genes. We found out that they do it in a way that is the opposite of what stress does to gene expression – we found that all mind-body techniques decrease the activity of genes that produce inflammatory proteins.
SI: What do you suspect is the mechanism for the reversal of stress’ detrimental effects on a cellular level? Also, MBI’s have a spiritual aspect. Does that play a role or can regular exercise – which offers its own form of stress relief – play a similar role? How does this study for in with your last work and how might it inform future lines of investigation?
IB: We believe that stress reduction that comes with MBI practice could be the reason for this effect on gene activity. This why it is likely that physical exercise could have a similar effect. Future studies should compare these MBIs with other interventions that are known to reduce stress. Spirituality also helps to perceive situations and experiences as being less stressful and threatening by providing meaning in life; at this point we can only speculate whether this has anything to do with gene expression because studies haven’t addressed this question yet. Future research will focus on comparing MBIs with other interventions to find out if this kind of change in gene expression is unique to MBIs.
SI: Can you describe the life of a scientist?
IB: Lives of scientist largely vary across disciplines. I am a psychologist, but my work is interdisciplinary so it can get quite dynamic. Most of the time, it is just me and my laptop because the biggest part of my work at this stage is writing (papers, book chapters, ethical approvals for studies or grant applications), corresponding with others and analysing data. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in a laboratory where I am doing gene expression analysis from blood samples collected in a prison project we had this year, which I really enjoy doing. One of my favorite parts of this job is seeing our research projects come to life after months of organizing and having an impact on people’s lives.
SI: How did you come to a life in science? Did you always want to be a scientist?
IB: As a child, I was mainly drawn to languages and art, not to science or related subjects. I think that is mainly because I haven’t had a teacher who presented science in a way that was engaging for me at that age. Later on, as a teenager, I became fascinated with psychology and decided that I want to become a psychotherapist. That changed soon enough because I got fascinated with scientific methodology and with the biology of human behavior when I started attending university. Doing a PhD became the logical next step.
SI: Who is your biggest influence professionally?
IB: I am inspired by all hard-working scientists who are bold enough to step out of their comfort zone combine approaches from different disciplines, especially by those who are researching mind-body interventions like I do. Another quality that I admire is knowing how to deliver complex ideas in a simple way and thus making science interesting to different audiences. If I’d have to choose my biggest influence, that would be Prof Robert Sapolsky, who is an incredible lecturer, writer and a scientist at Stanford University. His books and lectures are what initially got me excited about working in science and I always come back to them when I need to feed my enthusiasm.
For a little background on yoga, check out this vintage video.