Positive Psychological Changes From Meditation Training Linked to Cellular Health

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The University of California, Davis, issued the following news release
about a study appearing in * Psychoneuroendocrinology*:

Positive psychological changes from meditation training linked to
cellular health.

Positive psychological changes that occur during meditation training are
associated with greater telomerase activity, according to researchers at
the University of California, Davis, and the University of California,
San Francisco.

The study is the first to link positive well-being to higher telomerase,
an enzyme important for the long-term health of cells in the body.

The effect appears to be attributable to psychological changes that
increase a person’s ability to cope with stress and maintain feelings of
well-being.

“We have found that meditation promotes positive psychological changes,
and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various
psychological measures had the highest levels of telomerase,” said
Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for
Mind and Brain.

“The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly
increases telomerase activity and therefore a person’s health and
longevity,” Saron said. “Rather, meditation may improve a person’s
psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to
telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote
longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person’s sense of
well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of
their physiology.”

The study, with UC Davis postdoctoral scholar Tonya Jacobs as lead
author, was published online Oct. 29 in the journal
Psychoneuroendocrinology and will soon appear in print. It is a product
of the UC Davis-based Shamatha Project, led by Saron, one of the first
long-term, detailed, matched control-group studies of the effects of
intensive meditation training on mind and body.

“This work is among the first to show a relation between positive
psychological change and telomerase activity. Because the finding is
new, it should serve to inspire future studies to replicate and extend
what we found,” Jacobs said.

Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biology and physiology at UCSF, is a
co-author of the paper. Blackburn shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for
physiology or medicine for discovering telomeres and telomerase. Other
co-authors include UCSF colleagues Elissa Epel, associate professor of
psychiatry; assistant research biochemist Jue Lin; and Owen Wolkowitz,
professor of psychiatry.

Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that tend to
get shorter every time a cell divides. When telomeres drop below a
critical length, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies.


Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres. Other
studies suggest that telomerase activity may be a link between
psychological stress and physical health.

The research team measured telomerase activity in participants in the
Shamatha Project at the end of a three-month intensive meditation retreat.

Telomerase activity was about one-third higher in the white blood cells
of participants who had completed the retreat than in a matched group of
controls.

The retreat participants also showed increases in such beneficial
psychological qualities as perceived control (over one’s life and
surroundings), mindfulness (being able to observe one’s experience in a
nonreactive manner) and purpose in life (viewing one’s life as
meaningful, worthwhile and aligned with long-term goals and values). In
addition, they experienced decreased neuroticism, or negative emotionality.

Using statistical modeling techniques, the researchers concluded that
high telomerase activity was due to the beneficial effects of meditation
on perceived control and neuroticism, which in turn were due to changes
in mindfulness and sense of purpose.

The Shamatha Project is the most comprehensive longitudinal study of
intensive meditation yet undertaken.

The intensive meditation retreat took place at the Shambhala Mountain
Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. The study included 30 participants
each in the retreat and control groups. Participants received ongoing
instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar, author and
teacher B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness
Studies. They attended group meditation sessions twice a day and engaged
in individual practice for about six hours a day.

A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity
and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same
place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time.

The Shamatha Project has drawn the attention of scientists and Buddhist
scholars alike, including the Dalai Lama, who has endorsed the project.

Saron and his colleagues are now analyzing and publishing other findings
from the project. In a paper published this summer in Psychological
Science, Katherine MacLean, a recent UC Davis Ph.D. graduate now at
Johns Hopkins University, reported that meditators were better at making
fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention over a long period.

The group’s next research article, currently in press in the journal
Emotion, will describe a meditation-related reduction in impulsive
reactions, which was linked in turn to enhancement in positive
psychological functioning. UC Davis postdoctoral researcher Baljinder
Sahdra is the lead author on that paper.

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