Co-authored by Tara Sheahan, Gina Murdock,
To date, one of biology's greatest achievements -- mapping the human genome -- is only just beginning to translate into medical advances. But in 2014 there will likely be more headlines about another type of study in genetics that is already impacting everyone. Its implications for how we relate to brain, mind, and body promise to be as groundbreaking as mapping the complete set of human genes.
Epigenetics -- The New Frontier for Positive Human Evolution
The old model of the gene, which dates back to the discovery of DNA in 1953, says that our genes are fixed and unchanging. From eye color, height, and other physical characteristics to behaviors like criminality or saintly acts of kindness, genetics strongly implied that we have minimal control over our biological destiny. To a large extent this may be true, but when it comes to behavior and disease susceptibility, there is much more to the story.
The study of changes in gene activity, not only based on DNA sequence, but also on life experiences -- epigenetics -- shows that a person's experience may directly affect their DNA. Soldiers in the aftermath of battle, for example, can use breath, focus, and attention to prevent PTSD; corporate leaders and their companies can integrate meditation to heighten creativity and reduce stress. In both cases, the germline DNA sequence of a person's inherited genes remains the same, but its activity dramatically changes, guided by one's choices, emotional state, and intention. Even more remarkably, some epigenetic changes, which involve chemical modifications of genes, have been shown to be heritable in mice and other species, i.e. they can be passed on to the next generation. This means that new traits acquired during adulthood may actually get passed on to one's offspring via gene modifications in humans, as well. The extent, to which this affects our own genomes, as well as how this occurs remains unclear and warrants intensive investigation.
These far-reaching findings indicate that it's time for a global research platform to measure the effects of body-mind practices on how we may modify our own gene activity and, perhaps, even those of subsequent generations.
The current frontier in brain research, to map the entire connectivity of the brain, the so-called connectome project, points to an even more exciting frontier, the "consciousome." This takes the brain to the next level, where we need to explore how our conscious choices may liberate us from biology-as-destiny. Our conscious choices and reactions to life experiences remodel the neural circuitry of our brains and, now, we need to explore the effects on our genomes. Thanks to neuroplasticity and epigenetics, we are arguably works in progress at the neurogenetic level for our entire lives.
Self-Directed Biological Transformation
In our Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative, a 100-subject study to map biological transformation, leaders in the fields of healthcare, art, business, environment, sports, entertainment, science and technology will be given a protocol to measure new genetic activity, searching for positive evolutionary effects. The intention is to develop a "new brain-mind" model that is aimed at attaining the most up-to-date understanding of our neural networks and gene activities as fluid, dynamic, and responsive to daily choices.
Self-directed = Voluntary activity in your thoughts, feelings, habits, and desires. This is the realm of personal choice.
Biological = Effects at every level of the mind-body system, including reactions by your genetic material.
Transformation = Major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes.
Where the connectome is like a diagram of all the telephone wiring in a city, the consciousome embraces the conversations taking place using the wiring. Neuroscience has already established that those conversations (billions of neural firings at a time) cause the wiring to change by developing new pathways of thought, feeling, and biological response (neuroplasticity).
Change is inevitable. The chemical makeup and neural connections of the brain are altered by the events of everyday life down to the genetic level. It's already been suggested that positive lifestyle changes directed at preventing and healing heart disease alter as many as 500 genes. The time is right for exploring just how much global control we have over this enormous potential in the mind-body connection.
The potential for self-directed transformation is available to everyone. The platform includes yoga and meditation, exercise for strength, agility, endurance and play, a balanced farm-to-table and Mediterranean diet, good sleep, and stress reduction. These are well-established ways to improve bodily function. By opening up the genetic doorway to consciousness, however, we take a leap forward. For example, recent studies indicate that meditation can have a strong effect on the length of chromosome telomeres, the nucleotide sequences that protect chromosomes from the deterioration linked to aging. That these beneficial effects occur immediately indicates just how responsive genetic activity is to mind-body interventions -- something never previously suspected.
Other self-directed biological transformation research will also extend to measuring levels of the Alzheimer-related A-beta protein levels in the blood and monitoring heart rate, hormonal levels, and total gene activity in order to understand how deep and lasting self-directed biological changes can be, and how much control we may have over them individually. Studies of other species have already shown that newly acquired conditions and traits, including the modified gene activities that drive them, can be passed on to future generations. We now need to explore the extent to which this occurs in the human genome. This "soft inheritance," in which the parents' life experiences and behavior may directly influence the genome of their offspring (transmitted via the epigenome), is arguably the most profound "living legacy" we can pass along to our children.
Leading the participating researchers, institutions and organizations will be a roster of prominent figures doing cutting-edge studies. The Initiative's Founders and Co-Chairs are Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD, Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School Vice-Chair of Neurology and Director of Genetics and Aging Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, Founder of The Chopra Foundation and Co-Founder, The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.
A Self-Directed Biological Transformation Founders Circle will be created in partnership with Glenda Greenwald, Founder, Aspen Brain Forum, Gina Murdock, Founder, Aspen Yoga Society, and Tara Sheahan, Founder, Conscious Global Leadership. Researchers from Harvard University, University of California, Scripps Translational Science Institute, and others will be invited to join the Self-Directed Biological Transformation "Research Consortium."