A new study shows religion helps toughen the brain

The reason that religion or spirituality appears to protect people with a family risk of depression from developing the illness may be because religion or spirituality thickens the cortices of the brain, Columbia University researchers Lisa Miller, PhD, Myrna Weissman, PhD, and colleagues report in JAMA Psychiatry.

Their study included 103 adults who were either at high familial risk or low familial risk for depression. The importance they placed on religion or spirituality was evaluated at two time points during a five-year period. The thickness of their brain cortices was measured with MRI at the second time point. The researchers found that the brain cortices of subjects who placed a high importance on religion or spirituality were thicker than the brain cortices of those who did not, but that, in addition, the cortices were especially strong in those individuals who placed a high importance on religion or spirituality and who had a high risk of depression.

“This study points to measurable, beneficial effects of presumably healthy spirituality, especially for individuals with biological predispositions to depression,” Mary Lynn Dell, MD, told Psychiatric News. The study, she continued, “adds to substantial and growing evidence that psychiatrists should support healthy development in that sphere of patients’ lives. Studies such as these may also inform the particular ways and methodologies religious professionals … employ to care for and work with depressed individuals, while at the same time staying true to their particular religious beliefs and traditions.”

My friend, Gene Rudd, MD, who is the Senior Vice President for the Christian Medical and Dental Associations writes:

A single study finding that the cerebral cortex is thicker in people who place a high priority on religion or spirituality obviously requires additional investigation. But it is only one new addition to the large amount of literature linking many positive health outcomes with religion and spirituality. That accumulative data is impressive – more than 1,500 studies and counting.

“So if faith is so good for health, why are we not introducing it more in clinical care? In surveying Christian doctors, we found that the great majority have a desire to engage the spiritual lives of their patients, but the obstacles that prevent them are 1) concerns about time, 2) fear of ethical concerns, and 3) ignorance of how to appropriately do so. Would it surprise you to know that there are excellent answers and solutions to each of these concerns?

“To help Christian doctors overcome the obstacles, effectively engage the spiritual needs of patients and improve overall healthcare delivery, CMDA has developed a curriculum called Grace Prescriptions. Visit here to find information as to where and when these seminars will be held in the coming months. While the live seminar experience is the best way to gain this knowledge and skill, we are also developing a video curriculum that can be used by groups in their local communities. The video curriculum is expected to be released by summer 2014.

“As a means of honoring Christ’s command that we be salt and light, and as a means of broadening the scope of healing care for your patients, we hope you will join us in learning how to provide Grace Prescriptions.”