For people at high risk of depression because of a family history, spirituality may offer some protection for the brain; Parts of the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, were thicker in high-risk study participants who said religion or spirituality was more important

Study Shows How Spirituality Could Help Your Brain

ANDREW M. SEAMANREUTERS
DEC. 30, 2013, 6:03 PM 1,466 4

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – 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 about religion.“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 Universityand chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric institute.

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, they write.

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.

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,” 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.”

Dr. Dan Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center 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,” 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.

Blazer added that it’s an exciting time, because researchers are actively looking at links between the brain, religion and risk of depression.

“We’ve seen this field move from a time when there were virtually no studies done at all,” he said.

Weissman said the mind and body are intimately connected.

“What this means therapeutically is hard to say,” she added.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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