Brain changes related to religion and spirituality could confer resilience to depression

New research published in Brain and Behavior provides evidence that religious and spiritual beliefs lower the risk of depression because they’re associated with changes in white matter microstructure, the communication pathways of the brain.

“A previous study found that persons who said that religion or spirituality were highly important to them were protected against depression over 5 years, even though they were at high risk because of their family history. Because of these findings, we tried to understand what may be going on in the brain that would have this effect,” said study author Dongrong Xu of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatry Institute.

Another study, published in 2014, found that belief in the importance of religion or spirituality was associated with thicker cortices in several brain regions, including the left and right parietal and occipital regions, which could confer resilience to depression.

In their new study, the researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to examine the brain microstructure of 99 participants. Diffusion tensor imaging is an MRI-based neuroimaging method that allows for the visualization of white matter tracts within the brain.

Xu and his colleagues found that the brains of those with high familial risk for depression more closely resembled the brains of those with low familial risk for depression when they reported that religion or spirituality was highly important.

“Our findings suggest that the reported high importance of [religion or spirituality]beliefs may have effects on white matter integrity in the bilateral frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and parietal lobe, particularly the bilateral precuneus. While these regions are also associated with risk of developing [depression], reorganization of white matter through [religion or spirituality]may help protect individuals from going on to develop the illness,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“In summary, individuals at high familial risk for depression typically share a neural signature that is similar to the one that can be found in those at low familial risk, as long as they take [religion or spirituality]beliefs as highly important.”

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“People’s religious beliefs may change over the time of lifespan. This study was based on the religiosity and spirituality measure across only about 5 years,” Xu explained.

“Future studies may want to use samples with more stable measures across a longer time period to validate our findings. Of course, all results require replication.”

The study, “A diffusion tensor imaging study of brain microstructural changes related to religion and spirituality in families at high risk for depression“, was authored by Xuzhou Li, Myrna Weissman, Ardesheer Talati, Connie Svob, Priya Wickramaratne, Jonathan Posner, and Dongrong Xu.