Religion may toughen the brain

Jan 17 2014 - 9:44am
A young girl in prayer

There has been a great deal of controversy about the impact of religion on mental health. Religious people have often raised the legitimate question about why religiosity is included by psychiatrists in the description of the nebulous diagnosis of schizophrenia. New research shows that religion may actually instead be associated with a build up of resistance to mental illness.

It has been noted that there is a 90 percent lower risk of major depression in adult offsrping of depressed people who reported that religion or spirituality are very important to them, reported JAMA Psychiatry. The frequency of church attendance itself was not found to be significantly related to the risk of depression.

In previous brain imaging studies in the adult offspring in these high-risk families it was revealed there were large expanses of cortical thinning across the lateral surface of the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain. The researchers wanted to determine whether high-risk adults who reported a high importance of religion or spirituality had thicker cortices than those people who reported moderate or low importance of religion or spirituality and whether or not this effect demonstrated variations by family risk status.

The results showed that the importance of religion or spirituality, but not the frequency of attendance to church, was associated independent of family risk with thicker cortices in various regions of the brain, including:

1: The left and right parietal and occipital regions

2: The mesial frontal lobe of the right hemisphere

The cuneus and precuneus in the left hemisphere

Furthermore, the effects of importance on cortical thickness in the brain were significantly stronger in the high-risk people than in the low-risk people. This finding was found to stand out along the mesial wall of the left hemisphere, which is the same region of the brain where there has been a previously reported a significant thinner cortex associated with a familial risk of developing depressive illness. These findings have been correlational and therefore do not prove there is a causal association between importance of religion and cortical thickness.

The researchers concluded that a thicker cortex in the brain associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer a resilience to the development of depression in people who are at high familial risk for major depression. This may be because the thicker cortex may expand a cortical reserve which counters to some degree the vulnerability that cortical thinning poses for the development of familial depressive illness.

Columbia University researchers Lisa Miller, Ph.D., Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., and colleagues
have stated the reason that religion or spirituality appears to protect people who have a familial risk of depression from developing the illness may be due to the fact that religion or spirituality thickens the cortices of the brain, reports Psychiatric News.