For people at high risk of depression
because of a family history, spirituality may offer some protection for the
brain, a new study hints.
Parts of the brain's outer layer, the
cortex, were thicker in high-risk study participants who said religion or
spirituality was "important" to them versus those who cared less
"Our beliefs and our moods are
reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see
this," Myrna Weissman told Reuters Health.
"The brain is an extraordinary organ. It
not only controls, but is controlled by our moods."Weissman, who worked on
the new study, is a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia
University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New
York State Psychiatric institute.
Read: Spirituality boosts mental health
The study found a link between brain thickness and religiosity
While the new study suggests a link between
brain thickness and religiosity or spirituality, it cannot say that thicker brain
regions cause people to be religious or spiritual, Weissman and her colleagues
note in JAMA Psychiatry.
It might hint, however, that religiosity
can enhance the brain's resilience against depression in a very physical way,
What have past studies shown?
Previously, the researchers had found that
people who said they were religious or spiritual were at lower risk of
depression. They also found that people at higher risk for depression had
thinning cortices, compared to those with lower depression risk.
The cerebral cortex is the brain's
outermost layer made of gray matter that forms the organ's characteristic
folds. Certain areas of the cortex are important hubs of neural activity for
processes such as sensory perception, language and emotion.
Read: Brain changes alter spirituality
For the new study, the researchers twice
asked 103 adults between the ages of 18 and 54 how important religion or
spirituality was to them and how often they attended religious services over a
In addition to being asked about
spirituality, the participants' brains were imaged once to see how thick their
All the participants were the children or
grandchildren of people who participated in an earlier study about depression.
Some had a family history of depression, so they were considered to be at high
risk for the disorder. Others with no history served as a comparison group.
Findings of the study
Overall, the researchers found that the
importance of religion or spirituality to an individual - but not church
attendance - was tied to having a thicker cortex. The link was strongest among those
at high risk of depression."What we're doing now is looking at the
stability of it," Weissman said.
Her team is taking more images of the
participants' brains to see whether the size of the cortex changes with their
religiosity or spirituality."This is a way of replicating and validating
the findings," she said. "That work is in process now.
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