Science Of EpiCentering!

OK, so you’re like me, into the science. You want to know what’s “really real” and what’s “new-age, mumbo jumbo” right? Great! Let’s go for it!

I’ve always loved science, particularly biology. The human body is simply stunning when you stand back and marvel at it. We can react in the blink of an eye to an incoming danger, yet we lie prone and sleep completely helpless for hours each night. Why?

We possess the most complicated structure in the known Universe right between our ears, which can fathom the innermost working of the atom and the creation of elements through multiple supernovae, yet we’re also capable of feeling immense sadness and anger.

Did You Know?

Drinking 500ml orange juice for 4-weeks significantly changed the expression of 1,840 genes compared to controls! That’s not one, or two. That’s 1,840 genes either upregulated or down-regulated.

Now imagine how your thoughts influence your body, your mind.

Everything you think, do, say, feel or believe changes your mind and body on a moment-to-moment basis.

How Science Works

How do we get a handle on understanding humans with a view to healing and helping them?

Reductionism

Until now, science has tried the reductionist technique. We take a complex puzzle and break it into pieces, try to understand the pieces and then reassemble the whole. With humans, that’s a very, very difficult task because the puzzle is like the most fiendish jigsaw you could ever imagine. Humans have between 15 and 50 billion billion cells, depending on who you like to quote! The brain itself has 100 billion neurons:

The most fiendish jigsaw puzzle ever?
The most fiendish jigsaw puzzle ever?
The human brain has 100 billion neurons. Each neuron has, on average, 10,000 connections. If each neuron is firing or not firing, the number of possible states of your brain at any given time is greater than the number of atoms in the Universe! Imagine how much untapped power you have to change your thoughts, ideas, beliefs. You can do almost anything!

So, science works with simpler models where necessary. We have “model” organisms where we understand things better, from bacteria (one cell, prokaryotic, [Escherichia Coli]) to yeast (one cell, eukaryotic, fungi [Saccharomyces cerevisiae]), to worms (about 1,000 cells, nematodes, [Caenorhabditis elegans]), to fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), to mice (Mus musculus) and rats (Rattus norvegicus, usually Sprague Dawley, SD, rats), to human cell lines and eventually humans.

Not only are smaller organisms generally easier to understand, they are also easier to keep under laboratory conditions in a standardised environment. In-bred strains are genetically identical and animal models generally breed more quickly than humans for inter-generational work.

Sidenote: with regards to reductionism, as an undergraduate I asked a professor, "If we could synthesise each part of a cell and put all those parts together, would that cell be alive"? He answered "Yes". I'm still not sure that answer is correct. Would we just create a dead, lifeless, cell? 

Reductionism probably reaches it zenith with publication of the DNA double helix structure.

DNA molecule showing double helix structure.
DNA (courtesy of Pixabay)

What a wonderful, elegant molecule. It encoded all our genes using just four bases (A,T,G,C). At the same time, reductionism probably floundered a little when it was realised that humans had 3.2 billion of those base pairs in our genome.

Being scientists, we then had to sequence all 3.2 billion to try to work out what was going on. Crazy, eh? It was thought that with the genome sequenced, we’d find all the genes and their locations. Well, nature threw us a curve ball. See this article for a great explanation as to why, 20 years after draft sequencing, the genome still holds many secrets.

Instead of 100,000 expected protein-encoding genes, we’re down to around 20,000, but there are also genes which encode RNA that isn’t then translated into protein but still performs a function in the cell, like X-chromosome inactivation. We’ve had to re-define “gene” as a result. Crazy!

It’s interesting to see the change in scientific understanding develop over time across various fields. For some reason, science always expects a neat solution to be just around the corner, but there rarely is.

As we peered into cells, they went from blobs of protoplasm under a microscope to incredibly intricate environments full of organelles, vesicles and other cellular machinery all working together.

Cell And Organelles Inside
Cell And Organelles Inside

Our understanding of cancer has grown immensely as the complexities of the disease have started to be understood. The realisation has been that each cancer arises from a set of mutations and circumstances unique to each individual, with the consequent complications for optimal patient treatment.

Interstellar space was thought to be just empty nothingness. However:

"quantum effects constantly produce particles and antiparticles "out of nothing," only to have them disappear few moments later" (Fermilab). 

Out of nothing“, you say? Huh.

Science thought our brains were largely frozen in adulthood, with very little “rewiring” possible. Now, we have the term “neuroplasticity” due to understanding that the brain can rewire itself, and this ability persists into old age.

Another field where dramatic leaps of knowledge are taking place is the beautiful world of epigenetics.

Epigenetics Is Short-Term “Natural Selection”

Our genome has evolved over millennia through the mechanism of natural selection as proposed by Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin wrote, "On The Origin Of Species"
Charles Darwin wrote, “On The Origin Of Species”

Over many generations mutations arise in individuals and the environmental pressures results in beneficial mutations being passed on and deleterious mutations being lost. That’s how a species adapts to its environment.

Epigenetics is now known to be another layer of adaption whereby change is made to the genome by upregulating or downregulating (silencing) the expression of genes as a response to changes the organism encounters in the environment, rather than through mutation of the genes themselves.

One recent study in nematodes (the aforementioned model organism) showed that silencing of a gene by epigenetic means could be inherited for 300 generations. This is a fascinating insight. It shows that epigenetics is a mechanism where adaptive changes to an environment can be made rapidly, and passed on to future generations through protein modifications of the DNA.

Of course, ultimately, the mechanism of epigenetics is encoded in our genes, as everything is, so DNA is still the source of who we are, but nature has ingeniously created a mechanism for both long-term heritable changes via Darwinian natural selection and short-term changes via epigenetics.

How Epigenetics Affects Us

The word epigenetics is also used to mean “gene expression changes” in general, without the requirement for those changes to be passed to future generations. In that usage, everything we do, and every choice we make, can affect our genes and who we are as individuals.

If we sit or stand, if we drink water or wine, if we choose chocolate or cabbage, each decision will result in epigenetic changes, differences in gene expression, either temporary, or long-lasting.

If everything we do changes our gene expression, what about our thoughts and feelings? Psychotherapy has long recognised that our early beliefs as infants shape our view of the world, and trauma can have negative, long-lasting implications.

The “learned behaviour” of a child who believes their environment is dangerous due to a lack of care and attention or actual harm will be represented in the brain by specific neuronal connections.

“Talking therapy” aims to overcome those specific patterns by creating new ones. By the same token, there are likely to be trauma-specific gene expression changes, epigenetic changes, which activate pro-stress response genes and silence stress-coping genes. If those changes happen at a young age, they could not only affect the person for life, but also be passed on to their offspring, potentially for multiple generations.

Epigenetic Drugs Or An Alternative?

Epigenetics is seen as a field for discovery of new therapeutic drugs, but there are monumental hurdles. Firstly, how could a drug determine which DNA modifications were “normal” and which were “aberrant”?

A drug to change your DNA?

At the time the DNA modifications were created, the person was experiencing trauma and the changes made were a coping mechanism.

It would be almost impossible to determine which modifications should be removed and tailor a drug to be that precise. Even if you could, you’d then have to test it in humans and somehow find a cohort to study where you could show that it was the drug and not something else providing relief from the trauma symptoms. Presumably that would have to be a long-term study to show long-term effectiveness.

While it may be possible to surmount these problems, given a large enough study over enough time, it would be very expensive. I doubt we’ll see any such drugs any time soon. However, you can change your own epigenetics…

Change Your Own Epigenetics

This is where we pretty much leave the realm of established science behind. 🙂

We can draw together cutting-edge science from different fields, but doing that gives us an unproven hypothesis. Let’s take a look anyway, shall we? Here’s what we know so far…

Having awareness and mindfulness can help improve your mental health, from depression and anxiety to stress. Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to cause changes in the brain.

The brain has neuroplasticity. You can actively re-write your brain. Meditation and mindfulness studies show this, as do people who recover from strokes, where parts of the brain take over the functions of the parts that were lost.

Psychological “talking therapies” help people recover from adverse mental health conditions. Presumably there are brain-based changes happening to them, from new synaptic connections forming to old ones being abandoned.

So, we don’t need to wait for epigenetic drugs to remove methyl groups from our DNA or acetyl groups from our histones, even if that ever becomes feasible.

We already have the power to do that within us. We can use the power of meditation and mindfulness to re-configure the DNA in our cells, our quadrillion synapses, our minds, brains and bodies in real time.

This is the new frontier of science. Welcome to EpiCentering, your source for a more unified, peaceful and happy you.

Neil Shearing, Ph.D.