Does Faith Help Prevent Depression?

There have been numerous reports in the medical press about the beneficial effects of faith-based beliefs as having a positive influence on stress, depression, and other behavioral health conditions, as for example a 90% decrease in the risk of major depression, assessed prospectively, in adults who reported that religion or
spirituality was highly important to them. There is evidence that this beneficial effect is independent of frequency of church attendance, which has not been positively related to depression risk. Brain imaging findings in the adult children of high-risk families conducted at Columbia University have revealed large expanses of cortical thinning across the lateral surface of the right cerebral hemisphere, which are due to the effect of depression on these brain structures.

To determine whether high-risk adults who reported a high importance of religion or spirituality in their lives actually had thicker cortices than those who reported moderate or low importance of religion or spirituality, researchers at Columbia conducted a new study of 103 adults (aged 18-54 years) who were the second- or third-generation offspring of depressed (high familial risk) or nondepressed (low familial risk) individuals. Religious or spiritual importance and church attendance were assessed at 2 time points during 5 years, and cortical thickness was measured on anatomical images of the brain acquired with magnetic resonance imaging at the second time point.

The results of the study show that, in individuals who cited religion or spirituality as important, and did not specify a high frequency of church attendance, thicker cortices were observable in the left and right parietal and occipital regions, the mesial frontal lobe of the right hemisphere, and the cuneus and precuneus in the left hemisphere, independent of familial risk. In addition, researchers report that the effects of faith importance on cortical thickness were significantly stronger in the high-risk than in the low-risk group, particularly along the mesial wall of the left hemisphere, in the same region where they previously reported a significant thinner cortex associated with a familial risk of developing depressive illness.

Although the researchers note that these findings are correlational and therefore do not prove a cause and effect association between importance of spirituality in a person’s life and cortical thickness, it is nevertheless evident that a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may have beneficial effects and help prevent the development of depression in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.

“Our findings therefore may identify a neural pathway through which the personal importance of spirituality or religion protects against major depressive disorder in people who are otherwise predisposed to developing it,” the researchers concluded.

“This study points to measurable, beneficial effects of presumably healthy spirituality, especially for individuals with biological predispositions to depression,” Mary Lynn Dell, M.D., told Psychiatric News. She is a professor of clinical psychiatry and pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University and has studied spirituality and religion. 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.”