Are Religious Experiences Caused By Brain Atrophy?
- Being 'Born-Again' Linked to More Brain Atrophy: Study
WEDNESDAY, May 25 (HealthDay News) -- Older
adults who say they've had a life-changing
religious experience are more likely to have
a greater decrease in size of the hippocampus,
the part of the brain critical to learning and
memory, new research finds.
According to the study, people who said they
were a "born-again" Protestant or Catholic, or
conversely, those who had no religious affiliation,
had more hippocampal shrinkage (or "atrophy")
compared to people who identified themselves as
Protestants, but not born-again.
The study is published online in PLoS ONE.
As people age, a certain amount of brain atrophy
is expected. Shrinkage of the hippocampus is also
associated with depression, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
In the study, researchers asked 268 people aged
58 to 84 about their religious affiliation, spiritual
practices and life-changing religious experiences.
Over the course of two to eight years, changes to
the hippocampus were monitored using MRI scans.
The researchers suggested that stress over holding
religious beliefs that fall outside of the mainstream
may help explain the findings.
"One interpretation of our finding -- that members
of majority religious groups seem to have less atrophy
compared with minority religious groups -- is that
when you feel your beliefs and values are somewhat at
odds with those of society as a whole, it may contribute
to long-term stress that could have implications for
the brain," Amy Owen, lead author of the study and
a research associate at Duke University Medical Center,
said in a Duke news release.
The study authors also suggested that life-changing religious experiences could challenge a person's established religious beliefs, triggering stress.
"Other studies have led us to think that whether a new
experience you consider spiritual is interpreted as
comforting or stressful may depend on whether or not
it fits in with your existing religious beliefs and
those of the people around you," David Hayward, research
associate at Duke University Medical Center, added.
"Especially for older adults, these unexpected new
experiences may lead to doubts about long-held religious
beliefs, or to disagreements with friends and family."
The researchers noted other factors related to
hippocampal atrophy, such as age, depression or
brain size, as well as other religious factors such
as prayer or meditation, could not explain the
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke provides details on brain atrophy.
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