I wanted to take a moment and introduce you to my dear friend and colleague Dr. Hemal Patel, who is Professor and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of California, San Diego. I thought it would be nice for him to let you know how things are going with the research that we are doing on all of you. So for those of you who have not met him yet, here is Dr. Hemal.
It has been an amazing, crazy, stressful, reflective, creative, adaptive, and Zoomie year. I have experienced each of these aspects and more, and I am sure you have as well. As I reflect on the year, one aspect that has been life-changing for me is getting involved in Dr Joe's community—initially as a curious researcher to see if there was a scientific explanation for all of the amazing stories of transformation I heard about—and more recently as someone who finally was immersed into the meditative experience in the Orlando Week Long Advanced Retreat. The molecular and biochemical research findings we have obtained in the past year are nothing short of incredible—borderline unbelievable to a skeptic—but indeed grounded in high-quality, blinded, and unbiased research.
As Dr Joe and I have talked, we felt it was important to make the community aware of the discoveries in the laboratory and provide a roadmap for the impact of these findings and the direction of future studies. I have chosen the format of a letter as this provides a level of intimacy and uses a lost art of communication that I hope will connect with each of you in a personal way. I will be providing such research updates about every three months. Here we go…
For much of my adult science-filled life, I have wondered about the age-old question of "nature vs. nurture." One of the first concepts I learned in my genetics, molecular biology, and cell biology courses was the "central dogma" first proposed in 1958 by Francis Crick (who discovered the structure of DNA), which proposes that DNA makes RNA which then makes proteins. Proteins are molecules responsible for getting things done. We have since learned that proteins are needed to make DNA and RNA, setting up a chicken-egg situation which is a discussion for another time about how this was scientifically resolved. Initially, this neatly packaged dogma allowed my brain to process early on that our DNA was paramount in creating who we are and what we become. My penchant for science, I rationalized, was due to inheriting the genetic predisposition of my father's amazing ability to do math and my mother's early science career. Identical twin studies have shown that though DNA (nature) plays a role in who we are and what we become, the environment (nurture) has the potential to modify who we can become. This has led to the concept of epigenetics, which studies how an organism can change its genetic predisposition by modulating the expression of genes through behavior and environment with the potential for heritability. I have since run my own genetics experiment, having three kids, and can see the dynamics of how an interplay of my and my wife’s genes and the environment we have created for our children play together to define the uniqueness of the individual.
So, let's meditate on these concepts above and see if the biochemical/molecular data we have obtained thus far on meditators supports the notion that…the experience can create the effect. We were fortunate before the Covid-19 pandemic to start collecting blood samples and physiology data at the Indian Wells Week Long Advanced Retreat in February 2020. These precious samples have served as a unique window for my laboratory to explore how the blood environment (full of metabolites, proteins, and other factors) can be changed by meditation and provide us with a unique look at a biological signature—a molecular fingerprint—for the effects of meditation on the body. We had three groups (controls [non-meditating, n=3], novice [new meditators, n=14], and experienced [well-established meditation framework and practice, n=11]) that we studied and obtained blood samples from before the week-long retreat started (pre samples) and after the retreat ended (post samples)—a total of 28 individuals that completed the entire week. For the initial, unbiased assays, we have focused exclusively on these pre and post samples from the three groups.
We started by looking broadly at what "stuff" was in the blood to help provide direction for more detailed studies. Our initial analysis focused on extracellular particles and vesicles (EVs). EVs are pieces of cells shed into the blood that were initially thought of as debris with no biological potential. Eventually, they were found to contain proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids that could create changes in cells, tissues, and organs far removed from the sources of EV release. An effect in the brain that causes the release of EVs from a brain cell can enter the blood circulation and ultimately impact your heart, liver, kidney, and other organs. We found that the blood, after the week-long meditation experience in the novice and experienced groups, showed changes in EV profiles. We are currently trying to identify what these changes are in terms of lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids in the EVs and expect that this will provide deeper insights into factors that can mediate the beneficial effects of meditation on the body.
This initial insight has led us to explore further the blood environment where we have looked in an unbiased way at nearly 3000 metabolites (primary, lipid mediators, and biogenic amines) and ~650 unique proteins secreted into the blood. This is a massive amount of information to consider; however, we have started to visualize and analyze it uniquely. We observe a dramatic shift in metabolites and proteins in the novice meditators after a week, and a significant, yet less robust, change in the experienced meditators. We find a similar, less robust difference when comparing where the new meditators end up in one week relative to the experienced meditators. This is quite exciting! We conclude from this initial look that the biological signature "explodes" in dramatic ways in new meditators that are experiencing something life-changing in the week-long retreat. This signature evolves very quickly to a signature that resembles what experienced meditators have adapted to in their daily lives. Even more impressive, when we look at the proteomic data in the novice meditators and consider the top 26 proteins that change in a significant manner pre to post and look at how these alter from individual to individual…we find that each individual moves the expression of these proteins in the same direction with an overall correlation of 77% for all of these proteins in combination. This does not happen by chance through random events. Imagine the wide range of individuals we studied with unique ethnicities, sex, home environmental factors, age, etc. They came together and synced their individuality and genetics into a shared experience and effect. Our data show that when this is done at a week-long retreat, the experience does, in fact, create the effect.
This is a lot to take in and to think about. Take your time in processing this information and putting it into the context for what this means for you and the community of meditators you are a part of. I will leave you here for now, and I look forward to filling you in on the next series of findings in a few months. We have been making great strides in understanding how meditation impacts viral infection, in particular SARS-CoV-2 (which causes Covid-19 disease). The story has been exciting for those who have seen the early data. I can tell you we have even more exciting things to share that we have recently discovered and are in the process of validating. I hope to have this compelling story to share with you next time.
I thank you for reading this update. I thank you for your commitment to this community. I thank you for your generous encouragement, support, and interest in this research. We have many places still left to go, and I am buckled in for the amazing journey ahead. I hope to see you at future events, as we have many exciting research opportunities planned. Take care and keep up the meditations to become the new you.
If you liked this blog post and want to learn more, Dr. Hemal reveals additional details about the research in the News & Updates section of our website. Scroll down our Scientific Research page to read the latest entry under Research News & Updates.
You can also watch Dr. Hemal's latest presentation at our July 2021 Denver Week Long Advanced Retreat. And if you would like to venture further down the rabbit hole, watch Dr. Nick Dogris and Dr. Tiff Thompson’s brain scan findings at that same retreat.
If you want to support the research, and make a tax-deductible contribution, visit Give to Research.