Emma Innes | December 31, 2013
They say religion is a matter of the heart – but it seems the shape of our brains could also have a role to play.
Believers or those with a spiritual side have ‘thicker’ sections of brain tissue than other people, a study suggests.
And in welcome news for the faithful, the researchers think that this thickening could also help to stave off depression.
‘Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this,’ Dr Myrna Weissman, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University, told Reuters Health.
‘The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods.’
While the new study suggests a link between brain thickness and spirituality, it cannot say that thicker brain regions cause people to be religious or spiritual, Dr Weissman and her colleagues noted in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
It might hint, however, that being religious can enhance the brain’s resilience against depression in a physical way, they wrote.
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 of depression had thinning cortices, compared to those with lower depression risk.
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 five year period.
In addition to being asked about spirituality, the participants’ brains were imaged once to see how thick their cortices were.
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.
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,’ Dr Weissman, who is also chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology Department at New York State Psychiatric Institute, said.
Her team is taking more images of the participants’ brains to see whether the size of the cortex changes with their spirituality.
‘This is a way of replicating and validating the findings,’ she said.
Dr Dan Blazer, the Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina, said the study is very interesting but is still exploratory.
‘I think this tells us it’s an area to look at,’ Dr Blazer, who was not involved in the new study, said. ‘It’s an area of interest but we have to be careful.’
For example, he said there could be other areas of the brain linked to religion and spirituality. Also, spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status.