Can the way we think influence the way we feel? Most of us would say yes. But can thinking affect the way our bodies behave on a genetic level? Can we, in essence, think ourselves better? A growing band of people seem to think so.
Among these is the American “energy medicine” researcher Dawson Church, who postulates in his book The Genie in Your Genes that humans are in control of their “epigenetic modifications”. He suggests we can effect such changes with the power of thought.
So let’s examine this. What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics examines how the body manages to create all of its different cell types – such as white blood cells, muscle cells and skin cells – from the same genetic code.
Imagine our genes as letters arranged on a page from which words can be made. Without punctuation on the page these words and sentences are open to interpretation.
Epigenetic modifications are like punctuation marks. They help a cell to read the information that is contained within the DNA sequence, and enable the cell to work out when a particular gene should be used, and when it should be switched off.
In this way, these epigenetic marks provide structure and formatting to the four-letter genetic code, just as punctuation does for the 26-letter English alphabet. This means the genome can be properly interpreted.
Same DNA, different cell
Each of the different cell types within our bodies has a profoundly different function, yet each is produced from the one set of instructions, the same DNA sequence.
For example, a gene that is required for white blood cell function might be covered in exclamation marks in a white blood cell, while the same gene might be covered in full stops in a muscle cell or skin cell, where it is not required.
When things go wrong
Epigenetic punctuation marks essentially control which genes are used and which are not. So what happens when epigenetic control goes awry?
Well, genes that should be switched off are turned on, and those that should be switched on are turned off – this wreaks havoc on the cell.
While these types of changes can result in the death of a cell, they are also frequently seen in cancer, and this is currently a hot topic of research.
Unlike DNA mutations commonly seen in cancer, changes to epigenetic marks are reversible. In this way, there is hope that epigenetic mistakes can be undone.
There are already a number of drugs (such as Dacogen) being used in clinics to treat patients with various forms of leukaemia. These drugs aim to remove the epigenetic mistakes within the leukaemia cells.
The pharmaceutical industry is actively developing new epigenetic drugs, which will hopefully be useful in the treatment of a wide range of tumours.
Current research is not only focused on when epigenetic modifications go wrong, but also how they normally occur. One area of intense scrutiny involves looking at how specific environmental changes can influence epigenetic marks.
Alteration in diet has a direct effect on epigenetic marks, since dietary factors can provide the molecules that are added to the DNA as epigenetic marks.
Folate is one of these dietary factors, which is especially important during early pregnancy, when epigenetic modifications are being established in the embryo.
Other environmental factors appear to have an indirect effect on epigenetic modifications. For example, stress may stimulate the body to produce the hormone cortisol, which then brings about changes in the epigenetic modification of particular genes.
So what about those claims made by Church, among others? Can we “think” our way into gene modification?
There is certainly no evidence we can control which genes are used via alteration of epigenetic modifications through the power of thought.
In fact, at this stage, neurobiologists have very little understanding of what a thought actually is, in terms of what happens in the neurons of our brains.
There is still much to discover in epigenetics. Over the coming years, work in this area will help us to understand what normally happens during human development, for example how different physical characteristics are established, but also what goes wrong in diseases such as cancer.
That’s definitely worth giving some thought to.