Research suggests belief may alter brain structures, canceling out familial predisposition.
In a new study published in the medical journal Brain and Behavior, researchers presented evidence that an active faith can reduce the chances of developing depression in subjects with a familial predisposition to the illness. The research was based on a previous report that, after a 5-year study, found that the white matter (brain tissue) microstructure of the brain was improved by a strong belief in a higher power.
Study author Dongrong Xu, of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatry Institute, explained, “Because of [the previous study’s] findings, we tried to understand what may be going on in the brain that would have this effect.”
In a different study, from 2014, the brains of believers were found to have thicker cortices in several brain regions, which could explain their improved resilience to depression.
Xu’s team of researchers used diffusion tensor imaging — an MRI-based neuroimaging method that takes images of white matter tracts within the brain — to examine the brain microstructure of 99 patients. The imaging showed that the brains of subjects who had a high familial risk of depression more closely resembled those with low familial risk in subjects who claimed 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 … 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.”
While the team is confident in their findings, they did note that, “People’s religious beliefs may change over the time of lifespan.” As the previous studies only examined the brains of faithful for 5 years, a longer study will be needed in the future in order to validate their findings.