Deepak and Tanzi at it again: change your genes by changing your life

May 8, 2014 • 6:09 am

Lord, when will these people stop promising that you can change your genes by changing your mind? This week’s “World” edition of PuffHo engages in its usual hyping of Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi in a piece called “Deepak Chopra on how to modify your own genes.” It’s pure quackery, implying that we can permanently alter our genes by altering our thoughts and lifestyle. Imagine: having peaceful children just by practicing meditation yourself! If you can think your way out of clinical depression, maybe—even if depression runs in families—it will reduce your children’s chance of becoming depressed!

I consider this article a severe and harmful distortion of science. Its author, Kathleen Miles, is a senior editor of PuffHo World without any apparent biological training. And it shows: she swallows the tasteless pablum dished out by Tanzi and Chopra without a grimace, or a word of criticism. Let’s deconstruct this ludicrous article, which, mercifully, is short. (It also has two videos.)

Physician and best-selling author Deepak Chopra has an empowering message: You can actually modify your own genes through your actions and behaviors.

“We are literally metabolizing something as ephemeral as experience or even meaning,” Chopra said in an interview this week at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California. “If somebody says to me, ‘I love you,’ and I’m in love with them, I suddenly feel great, and I make things like oxytocin and dopamine, serotonin, opiates. And if someone says to me, ‘I love you,’ and I’m really thinking they’re manipulating me, I don’t make the same thing. I make cortisol and adrenaline.”

Throughout the piece one sees the conflation of two things: changes in gene expression versus changes in the structure of the genes themselves. Certainly when your body has a physiological reaction, or there’s neuronal activity, genes are involved, either having made the hormones or neurotransmitters that are expressed, or becoming activated to make more of them. Genes are also involved in rewiring your brain in light of your experience. But this is all differential activation of genes that remain themselves structurally unchanged. Their sequences don’t change: they’re just turned on and off.

This has been known for years, but Tanzi and Chopra deliberately (or so I think) confuse gene expression (as in the second paragraph above) with gene structure, as in the paragraphs below:

If certain experiences happen enough times, they can affect how genes are expressed and packaged without altering DNA, said Harvard Medical School professor Rudy Tanzi. This phenomenon, called epigenetics, is gaining increasing popularity among scientists.

“Every experience will cause chemical changes in your body and in your brain, and those chemical changes will then cause genetic changes,” said Tanzi, who recently co-authored the book Super Brain with Chopra. “If those genetic changes occur often enough and with persistence, that can lead to modification of those genes such that they react the same way in the future because they’ve been trained.”

Though not a typical outcome, there have been reports of such modifications being passed onto subsequent generations, in what’s known as transgenerational epigenetic evolution.

Now epigenetics is not the differential expression of unchanged genes, but the structural alteration of genes (which itself can change their expression) by modification of their DNA sequence—usually by attaching methyl groups (one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) onto specific DNA bases. Epigenetic modification of genes has also been known for a while, can affect their expression, and can be adaptive, as when male and female genes are differently methylated, and expressed, in the egg that results from fertilization. But all the adaptive changes in methylation we know of are themselves coded in the DNA; that is, the DNA has a sequence that tells other parts of the DNA to become epigenetically modified in an adaptive way.

This is not what people like Tanzi and Chopra mean by “epigenetics,” though. They mean that the changes in DNA come not from the DNA code itself, but from the environment, and then become inherited.  Indeed, such “Lamarckian” changes in DNA modification can occur from the environment, and be inherited—but not for more than a few generations. It is not a stable form of inheritance, and hence can’t play a role in evolution, or (as the duo repeatedly implies) in changing the genes of your children. Such modifications have never, to my knowledge, been the basis of a biological adaptation, because they disappear within a few generations. All evolutionary adaptations that I know of have, when investigated finely, proved to rest on changes in the sequence of DNA bases. None of them have been shown to rest on environmentally-induced epigenetic modification of the DNA.

But Tanzi and Chopra use the few unstable examples found in the lab to construct an airy edifice of self-help. Here’s what they say:

For example, Tanzi said, a study published in December in the journal Nature Neuroscience reported that mice inherit smell memories from their fathers — even when the offspring have never met their father or experienced the smell themselves. The study also found that the third generation of mice was born with the same smell memory.

“If you had told me that five years ago, I would’ve said it’s science fiction,” Tanzi said, referring to transgenerational epigenetic evolution. “When you talk about this stuff, the conservative evolutionary biologists, the Darwinians, will come out and attack you.”

I suspect that by “conservative evolutionary biologists,” Tanzi (who’s threatened me with action for libel) means me, and perhaps Dawkins and others who have called Tanzi and Chopra out for their exaggerations. After all, we’re the annoying fleas on the body of quackery, demanding evidence for their claims. The problem with the mouse example is that , like all epigenetic modifications it hasn’t been shown to be stable for more than two generations. 

And here’s the telling admission by Tanzi (my emphasis):

While scientists have found evidence for epigenetic changes that are passed down in mice and water fleas, Tanzi noted that there is only circumstantial evidence for the phenomenon occurring in humans.

Still, he emphasized that the connection between our actions and our genes is clear.

“The brain is not static. It’s dynamic. It’s changing all the time,” Tanzi said. “And you’re in charge of how it changes.”

So—no evidence in humans. Nevertheless, the Quack Train has left the station, and nothing will induce these two to provide proper caveats about the research, for they’re selling books and CD’s about how we can change our genes by changing our behavior.  I don’t mind these people speculating about what might happen in humans in the absence of any evidence, but I consider it unethical to use those unfounded speculations to sell stuff to a gullible public.

Note, in the above, Tanzi’s argument that the brain is “dynamic” and “changing all the time.” Well of course it does: it changes every time we receive sensory information, have a thought, or feel an emotion. So what? That says absolutely nothing about modifying our genes.  And it’s a bit misleading to say “you’re in charge of how it changes.” As a determinist, I don’t think we are (what does Tanzi mean by “you,” anyway?). Even if you’re not a determinist, you must admit that changes in your brain often have nothing to do with your volition. If you’re permanently traumatized by some horrible event, or your memories are altered by external events, that occurs without your conscious will.

To see how far these guys take this stuff, here are two videos from the PuffHo piece, described as follows:

Deepak Chopra, physician and best-selling author, and Rudy Tanzi, Harvard Medical School professor, spoke with Kathleen Miles, senior editor of The WorldPost, at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California on April 28, 2014.

They’re short, so listen up. There’s more quackery here than in a duck colony!

Note Chopra’s statement: “There is no experience of any kind that doesn’t get metabolized into gene regulation and neuroplasticity.” Metabolized? What does he mean? If he means that experiences affect the expression of genes we already have, then fine. And if he means that our brains get “rewired” from experiences, that’s true, too. But then Tanzi chimes in at 1:45 and says that these chemical changes in the brain cause genetic changes that can be passed on. That’s simply distorting the truth; we have no idea that that can happen in our species (or stably in any species), and considerable evidence against it.

Here’s the second video, in which Tanzi again implies that stuff like getting yourself un-depressed might change your children’s propensity to be depressed. To be fair, he does admit here that the data are a bit thin in humans (i.e., nonexistent), but then goes on to discuss the temporary epigenetic modifications seen in other species.

At about 2:30 Tanzi disses criticism by “conservative evolutionary biologists” who “don’t do really do experiments but do a lot of lecturing”  I deeply resent that, for I’ve spent my career doing experiments (should I threaten Tanzi with a lawsuit?) and mapping genetic differences between species. He then says that biology is “self-organizing”: more jargon that, at bottom, means nothing.

My three conclusions.

1. Chopra is up to his old tricks by trying to build a reputation and a fortune on unproven science (as well as obfuscation existing science). I maintain my view that he’s a complete quack, and resent him for distorting good science to mislead people and swell his coffers.

2. His partner in this endeavor, Tanzi, will ultimately seriously damage his reputation (he’s a professor at Harvard) by not only associating with the quack Chopra, but by pushing the idea of epigenetic modification of our brains without supporting evidence. But he’ll cry all the way to the bank. Were I Tanzi’s colleague, I’d urge him to get as far away from Chopra as possible.

Now it’s possible that these guys could be right to some extent—that is, there may be a few permanently inherited modifications of our genes induced by epigenetic alterations stemming from the environment. But I’d bet a lot of money that we don’t find, say, five of them that are adaptive within the next decade.

3. This is science journalism at its very worst. Miles has not taken the slightest effort to vet Tanzi and Chopra’s claims by consulting other scientists. She is gullible and just wants to sell a big story. PuffHo should be ashamed of itself for publishing stuff like this, but, as we know, that rag has no shame. Their job is to sell website clicks, and if they have to push quackery to do it, so be it. Frankly, this is far worse than sideboob!

More quackery from Twitter, with Deepakity trying to get us “atheist Darwinists” to pay attention:

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62 thoughts on “Deepak and Tanzi at it again: change your genes by changing your life

  1. I must assume that Rudy Tanzi genuinely believes this stuff, because he’s a medical professor at Harvard and as Jerry Coyne said, he risks his reputation, and though I’m sure Tanzi’s salary is peanuts compared to bigtime celebrities or CEO’s, I don’t see how he could be that hard off for cash he’d be peddling it just for $$.

    What Deepak Chopra believes in besides $$, I wont wager a guess.

  2. Can we modify our own genes? No. There, that was easy.

    Seriously, how little do you have to know to fall for that stuff? I would have immediately recognized it as bull at around mid-highschool, and some journalists take it seriously as grownups?

    1. Can we modify our own genes? No

      Hypothetically I suppose someone with the right training and faclities could draw some of their own blood, modify the DNA in the cells via lab work, then shove it back in their body. But that’s the exception that proves the rule: Chopra’s claim is really that one can modify genes by thinking, and what the exception shows is that we actually know how to modify genes, and that isn’t how it can be done.

      1. And then what, though? The remaining 99.9999999999999999999999999% of my cells will still have the old genes. In science fiction stories, you can read about retroviruses being used to infect all cells of the body to genetically engineer a living human. But that is, well, fiction… Real Life gene therapy is limited to reparing a single enzyme in a single organ.

        1. Yes, using “literally” when you mean “metaphorically” should literally be a hanging offence.

          1. Yes, that does happen, and it’s inexcusable. More often, however, people use “literally” an as intensifier. It’s idiomatic. The hyperbolic use of “literally” is no more wrong than is the use of “really” in “If we don’t get home before midnight, my dad is really going to kill me.”

            1. That people are objecting to hyperbolic ‘literally’, but not ‘really’, should be ample proof that it is nowhere near as idiomatic as you like to pretend.

  3. I was in the news business back when Jesus rode dinosaurs.

    One of my colleagues was absolutely famous for presenting only one side of a contentious issue at a time. That way, he’d have an automatic follow-up story to present the other side of the same issue.

    He was fundamentally the laziest reporter I ever met. Because he knew this was pretty low on the ethics scale, but did not care. He got two stories out of it instead of one — which meant the assignment editor didn’t bother him. Column inches being more important than fair-balance.

    I suspect this “reporter” (seriously, we need a new term for this type of person — because they’re not doing any of a reporter’s job) won’t go that far. She’s got an unlimited supply of woo to tap, and few sources of anti-woo willing to wade through the nonsense.

    1. What is a reporter anyhow? Do they still exist? I am certain my sons will have no idea what they once were. Like an extinct species. Since we do not have a TV, when they happen onto grandma’s house and see people with makeup, short skirts, etc. who appear to talk more sophisticated and faster than normal they might have some idea of what reporters (at least most of them) have become. Their reaction, I should think, will be, “Do people take this seriously?”

  4. Of course you can change your genes with behavior. For example, if you were to eat your enriched uranium cereal every morning, you’d be surprised what your genes will do after a while.

          1. The NOCs study is interesting, but doesn’t seem conclusive. Do the long term studies take account of other lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking, exercise) of people who consume more red meat?


            1. Ugh – large comment got eaten last night…

              I haven’t drilled down to the specific paper(s), but It seems that (being an epidemiologist myself, though one dealing with the clap, mostly) they were trying to deal with cross-confound between red meat, non-red meat, fish, smoking, drinking, and fiber intake.

              Also being an epi person, I know how these kinds of studies have tons of data problems… self-report, recall issues… trying to please the researchers (so I hope they tried to estimate “Research bias” and other types of bias. Usually one has to clear all kinds of hurdles, but I have seen more shoddy research over the years than I’d care to, and haven’t pored over the specifics of these studies. Metanalyses in human studies are particularly problematic — many times seem to report more confidence than is sometimes warranted due to biases that I cannot quite remember the source of… still having my coffee and not feeling particularly well. My neurosyphilis is probably acting up this morning. 😉

            2. And I agree… not completely conclusive, but human epi studies tend rarely to be. The biggest thing I think I can safely say is there appears to be a dose-response continuum, where the people that have multiple risks (e.g. smoke, drink, and eat tons of red meat and eschew fish & fiber) would be the people most greatly affected.

              It may be that, once again, stuff in tobacco is the thing that ultimately is triggering a suppressed immune response to cancers in various forms all over the body, and the fats and charred stuff in the red meat provides some of the necessary chemicals in the intestinal tract. It’s all so much tougher to tease the effects apart than in your line of work, and yes, overall confidence in the results are rarely clear-cut.

              1. Th is all very interesting. I’ve always been curious regarding the known problem with self reporting, especially food and alcohol.

                I recently started tracking my alcohol intake because I felt like I’d increased it a bit and I had put on a few pounds, also likely because I reduced my exercise over this past brutal winter.

                Anyhow, I tracked it for about 3 weeks and came up with 2.1 drinks per day over that time. The thing is I actually had no way to determine if that was more less or the same as what I average long term. How do researchers even begin to account for this issue or is it just a given that the level of uncertainty is unquantifiable? I can think of any number of ways one would unintentionally skew results just by virtue of paying closer attention to habits.

              2. It’s really tough, and I usually rely on the expertise of some close colleagues re: recall issues (they have a more solid psych background, and one is one of the real whips in this area… focusing on recall issues for at least 15 years now). He could probably look at this stuff and levy better criticisms than what occur to me (and answer your question better than I could ever possibly). My poor understanding is that such errors can at least BEGIN to be quantified / guessed at, really… on the basis of a large body of similar convergent research in areas where you have both recall/self-report information and more direct observation, and one looks at the discrepancies between the two. (and then impute similar biases to to similar studies when you lack the direct observations). There’s a lot of lacunae, but it is hoped that such bias estimates are better than flying totally blind…

  5. Holy Ceiling Cat, not this again. The books may not be selling quickly enough!

    Anyway, a uranium milkshake should start the process. Anyone know whether RS sells it?

  6. “We are literally metabolizing something as ephemeral as experience…” then maybe. But this statement only serves to dress the trivial in fancy clothes.

    1. It certainly falls in with stuff sold by homeopaths. If you can impress “information” from toxic substances on water molecules by striking the containers repeatedly during serial dilutions, it might seem reasonable that we could modify our own genes simply by altering our behavior or thinking.

  7. I read some woo recently that claimed that eye doctors were in some sort of conspiracy to sell you corrective lenses – evidence? Your eyes get worse so clearly they must be wanting to just sell you more lenses. The answer, according to this article, was that you needed to do eye exercises to fix the eye issues naturally. Good grief! I have extreme myopia -6.5 in each eye so this would be crazy.

  8. I think I understand how this works. If I only make right-handed turns in my car, my car will loose its ability to turn left. If I leave my TV on one channel, the electronics will start rejecting the other channels. If I pay my writers nothing, my paper will no longer attract well-qualified candidates. And if I send all my money to Deepak, my bank account will only be able to hold a pittance.

    Deepak is like a Nigerian scammer with a science dictionary.

    1. No, no! If you send all your money to Deepak your bank account will develop its capacity for cash flow, both in and out. It will finally be able to realize its potential!

      Just like tithing in religion. Are you barely scraping by? The lord will bless you especially hard if you forego feeding and clothing your children and send those tithes in anyway. You and your family will be just fine. Trust me. The blessings will totally make up for it. And then some.

  9. Modify your genes just by thinking about them? Total tosh, at the very least you need a Swiss Army knife and a good jeweller’s loup. Last month I had the hide of a rhinosoros but it played havoc with the furniture so I’m working on a feathery down and the strength of a gorilla so I can deal more effectively with the naysayers.

    My diy gene splicing kit will be available on ebay at the bargain price of £250, or $1000 as you yanks are so gullible and have too much money for your own good.

    Seriously, there are people who lbelieve this stuff and will spend money on it? I’m in the wring business.

  10. So they’ll pay Kathleen Miles to promote these guys, which only serves to enrich them, but they won’t pay you to write from the sober side. If only you had some straws to offer people to grab hold of.

  11. Forgot to add the perniciousness of this type of pseudo science. It follows that people who suffer from depression can think themselves out of it so it is therefore their choice to feel this way. With all the existing stigma around mental illness, this doesn’t help. It would also follow that people with diabetes should just stop using insulin & just think their pancreas secretions better. Ridiculous!

    1. Oh sure, a good dose of victim blaming is pretty much the industry standard for new age quackery as well as many a religion. Even if you already buy the crap, of it don’t work its because you had the wrong attitude. Take “the secret” fpr example…

  12. My new law (Jeff’s Law): the more a proponent of an idea claims that it’s being “suppressed” or “attacked”, the less likely that it is true.

  13. “… but Tanzi and Chopra deliberately (or so I think) confuse gene expression (as in the second paragraph above) with gene structure,”

    Another variation of the old bait & switch misdirection. Con men have been using this type of thing since the beginning of cons.

  14. Small quibble with your definition of epigenetics.

    You define epigenetics more narrowly as “structural alteration of genes (which itself can change their expression) by modification of their DNA sequence”.

    Others use a broader definition, like here from the Wikipedia page:
    “epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence”. This definition would, for example, include heritable modifications mediated by prions (i.e., without modification of DNA sequence) and similar such processes independent of changes in primary DNA sequence.

    It may be this broader definition that Tanzi et al are using?

    1. That particular sentence in Jerry’s post is a bit unclear (maybe a typo?), hence the confusion. There is really no uncertainty about the definition of epigenetics. The Greek suffix “epi-” means “on top of, above”, so “epigenetics” describes the changes that are “on top of/in addition to genetics”. Those are reversible chemical modifications (for example, DNA methylation or histone acetylation) that do not alter the sequence of nucleotides in DNA, but can modify gene expression.

      Even if these modifications can be influenced by the environment (there is some evidence for that), powerful mechanisms exist (for example, in the developing embryo), which erase inherited modifications and create new ones. No evidence has been presented so far that epigenetic changes can be evolutionary adaptive (not to mention the fantasy that they could be directed by our thoughts) and Tanzi and Chopra are at best insincere when suggesting otherwise.

  15. The Deepster stares at Tanzi like he’s waiting for a new bit of quackery to come out on Tanzi’s lips to which he can glom on to for future quackery ideas!

  16. Huffington Post has a long history of promoting pseudo-science, alternative medicine, homeopathy, anti-vaccination stuff and the like.

    This bothers me a LOT more than their articles favorable to various forms of religion.

    Deepak Chopra is ultimately in the tradition of American New Thought which includes various failed therapies like Christian Science, Religious Science, all of which claim to alleviate personal problems and ailments merely by the power of mind.

    This is ironic as much of New Thought has been often viewed as being an American misappropriation of Eastern philosophy and Chopra is himself Indian.

  17. Watched the videos. What I heard was, “Blah blah blah quack quack, A affects B so B must effect A,” which is should come as shocking news to the whole scientific community and really the world at large.

    They should just cut to the clip of Bill O’Reilly saying, “You can’t explain that!”

  18. I’m not up on woo-mechanics, but if you can change your genes by thinking, why can’t Deepity correct his eyesight?

  19. Deepak Chopra metabolize this: It would appear that you are either deliberately deceptive or you are only knitting with one needle. You know, your lights are on but nobody is home, your oars don’t reach the water, you’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal, your elevator doesn’t quite make the top floor, you played too much without a helmet, the cuckoo in your clock is missing, the twinkle in your eyes is actually the sun shining through your ears, etc.

  20. David Bentley Hart makes the same assertions. Maternal love engenderes loving genes not vice versa.

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