Religion and Spirituality are Associated with Brain Difference is Individuals At-Risk for Major Depression
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“There are two possible explanations. One is that a thicker cortex is more associated with being interested in spiritual questions, the connectedness of people, etc and is simultaneously protective against depression. The other is that a lifelong habit of meditating and/or contemplation of spirituality stimulates the metabolism and neurogeneration in areas of the brain that confer resilience to trauma and therefore reduce the risk of developing depression.” – Emily Deans
Spirituality is defined as “one’s personal affirmation of and relationship to a higher power or to the sacred. Spirituality has been promulgated as a solution to the challenges of life both in a transcendent sense and in a practical sense. The transcendent claims are untestable with the scientific method. But the practical claims are amenable to scientific analysis. There have been a number of studies of the influence of spirituality on the physical and psychological well-being of practitioners mostly showing positive benefits, with spirituality encouraging personal growth and mental health.
One way that spirituality can have its effects on the individual is by altering the brain. The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread area. and have found that meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits. So, religion and spirituality may be associated with changes in the nervous system.
In today’s Research News article “A diffusion tensor imaging study of brain microstructural changes related to religion and spirituality in families at high risk for depression.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6379589/), Li and colleagues recruited adult (average 33 years old) offspring of patients with major depressive disorder (high risk) and offspring from individuals who have no psychiatric conditions (low risk). Their brains were scanned with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). They also completed a scale measuring the importance they ascribed to religion and spirituality.
They found that in participants who believed that religion / spirituality was of low importance but were of high risk for major depression had significantly decreased integrity and microstructure in white matter regions neighboring the precuneus, superior parietal lobe, superior and middle frontal gyrus, and bilateral insula, supplementary motor area, and postcentral gyrus. Participants who believed that religion / spirituality was of high importance and were of high risk for major depression had significantly decreased integrity and microstructure in white matter regions surrounding the left superior, and middle frontal gyrus, left superior parietal lobule, and right supplementary motor area.
These are complex findings that suggest that adults at high risk of developing major depression have lower integrity (functionality) of the connections between brain regions (white matter) potentially making them more susceptible for the development of major depression. These neural changes appear to be different depending upon the individuals’ beliefs of the importance of religion / spirituality. Religion / spirituality may be associated with reorganized connections that may be associated with protection from the development of major depression. This may be a mechanism by which religion / spirituality helps to protect individuals from developing major depression.
This is highly speculative and it will take much more research to test these ideas. But, nonetheless, the results suggest that how well the brain operates is damaged by having parents with major depressive disorder. But, being religious / spiritual may alter the disruptions of the brain protecting the individual from the development of a major depressive disorder.
“people with habitual spiritual practices show cortical thickening in the prefrontal cortex. Intriguingly, she says that individuals who live with chronic depression experience cortical thinning in the same brain region.” – Maria Cohut
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Li, X., Weissman, M., Talati, A., Svob, C., Wickramaratne, P., Posner, J., & Xu, D. (2019). A diffusion tensor imaging study of brain microstructural changes related to religion and spirituality in families at high risk for depression. Brain and behavior, 9(2), e01209. doi:10.1002/brb3.1209
Previously in a three‐generation study of families at high risk for depression, we found that belief in the importance of religion/spirituality (R/S) was associated with thicker cortex in bilateral parietal and occipital regions. In the same sample using functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalograph (EEG), we found that offspring at high familial risk had thinner cortices, increased default mode network connectivity, and reduced EEG power. These group differences were significantly diminished in offspring at high risk who reported high importance of R/S beliefs, suggesting a protective effect.
This study extends previous work examining brain microstructural differences associated with risk for major depressive disorder (MDD) and tests whether these are normalized in at‐risk offspring who report high importance of R/S beliefs. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data were selected from 99 2nd and 3rd generation offspring of 1st generation depressed (high‐risk, HR) or nondepressed (low‐risk, LR) parents. Whole‐brain and region‐of‐interest analyses were performed, using ellipsoidal area ratio (EAR, an alternative diffusion anisotropy index comparable to fractional anisotropy). We examined microstructural differences associated with familial risk for depression within the groups of high and low importance of R/S beliefs (HI, LI).
In the LI group, HR individuals showed significantly decreased EAR in white matter regions neighboring the precuneus, superior parietal lobe, superior and middle frontal gyrus, and bilateral insula, supplementary motor area, and postcentral gyrus. In the HI group, HR individuals showed reduced EAR in white matter surrounding the left superior, and middle frontal gyrus, left superior parietal lobule, and right supplementary motor area. Microstructural differences associated with familial risk for depression in precuneus, frontal lobe, and temporal lobe were nonsignificant or less significant in the HI group.
R/S beliefs may affect microstructure in brain regions associated with R/S, potentially conferring resilience to depression among HR individuals.