Greater Hippocampal Atrophy in “Born Again” Brains

Over the past decade, researchers have become increasingly interested in discovering the neural basis for religiosity. While prominent experiments, such as Persinger’s “God Helmet”, have obtained much media attention, little focus has been given to neuroimaging studies which aim to assess the relationship between the structure of the brain and religious belief. A 2011 study published in PLOS ONE has examined the role a person’s religious persuasion plays in relation to hippocampal volume change.

Many previous studies into hyper-religiosity have focused specifically on temporal lobe epilepsy. Such studies have demonstrated a link between a heightened response to religious or supernatural belief and damage to the temporal lobe.

The study collected high-resolution MRI data from 268 older adults and assessed specific religious factors. These included life changing religious experiences, religious practices and group membership. Researchers analyzed the hippocampal volume of the participants using the GRID program and discovered greater hippocampal atrophy in participants who had reported having significant “life changing” religious experiences.

A drawing by Golgi of the Hippocampus

Research discovered those who considered themselves to be “born again” Protestants, Catholics and those with no religious affiliations had more significant hippocampal atrophy than those who considered themselves to be “traditional” Protestants.

Interestingly, the research also discovered that those who considered themselves to be “born again” Protestants, Catholics and those with no religious affiliations had more significant hippocampal atrophy than those who considered themselves to be “traditional” Protestants.

Religious belief has long been regarded to have some positive impacts upon mental health; however the new findings could prove otherwise. The researchers suggest in their report, that some religious factors could be a source for stress. Chronic stress can alter hippocampal volume due to elevating levels of glucocorticoids. Researchers claim that the measures of stress produced during the study had no correlation with the noted changes in hippocampal volume as they reported acute, rather than cumulative stressors.

However, the researchers have not dismissed the impact cumulative stress could play in the hippocampal atrophy. They noted that cumulative stress is often associated with being a part of a ‘religious minority’.

The longitudinal study also found those who reported ‘life changing’ religious experiences were also susceptible to the effects of cumulative stress. Changes to previously held convictions can produce a new set of questions or doubts about one’s faith. This could potentially enhance cumulative stress, even if the person considered the experience to be positive.

In previous neuroimaging studies, the hippocampus has been seen to be activated during meditation. These reports discovered structural neuroanatomical differences between those who actively meditate and those who do not. The hippocampal volumes in mediation practitioners were seen to be significantly higher, as was gray matter concentrations. However, the new study found little correlation between the change in hippocampal volume and frequency of embarking on religious praise or meditative rituals.

This study explores how religious beliefs and associations affect the structural anatomy of the brain. The findings appear to show that factors including membership to religious groups and “life changing” religious experiences, contributed to hippocampal atrophy. The atrophy could have further clinical implications as it has been identified as a marker for some psychiatric disorders, such as dementia and depression, later in life.

By V. Driscoll
Contact: Clinically Psyched
Source: Clinically Psyched article
Image Source: The drawing by Golgi of the Hippocampus is available in the public domain.
Original Research: Based upon full open access research for “Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life” by Amy D. Owen, R. David Hayward, Harold G. Koenig, David C. Steffens and Martha E. Payne in PLOS ONE. Published online March 30 2011 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017006

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