People raised in low-socioeconomic status (SES) households are at an increased risk for physical illness in adulthood. A shift in gene expression profiles in the immune system is one biological mechanism thought to account for elevated disease susceptibility, with a frequently investigated profile being the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), characterized by increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes and decreased expression of antiviral and antibody-related genes.
The present study investigated, in a sample of at-risk midlife adults (N = 88), whether those randomized to learn loving-kindness meditation (LKM) in a 6-week workshop would show a reduction in CTRA gene expression, compared to those randomized to learn mindfulness meditation (MM). We assessed emotions daily and hypothesized positive emotions to account for the expected effect of LKM on gene expression.
Results showed significant group differences from pre- to post-intervention, yet in the opposite direction as hypothesized: Participants randomized to the MM group showed significant declines in CTRA gene expression, whereas those in the LKM group showed significant increases in CTRA gene expression. Both groups showed increases over the 6 weeks in daily reports of positive emotions (b = .007, p < .001) alongside decreases in negative emotions (b = − .005, p < .001). Thus, positive emotions were not pursued as a candidate mediator of observed group effects.
This study is the first to examine whether the biological impact of childhood low SES can be reversed in midlife through meditation interventions. Results suggest mindfulness meditation may be a viable option for improving health outcomes in this at-risk population.
ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02400593.