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Religion bad for your brain?

A recent study reported in PLoS One has found that there is increased atrophy of the hippocampus in certain religious groups.

Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.

This was a fairly small study (268 older individuals) and obviously needs to be replicated before it is accepted as correct. Still, it is intriguing. We are constantly told that religion is good for your health but is it? The hippocampus is critical for the formation of long-term memories and it shrinks in people who are subjected to stress, so the authors suggest that higher anxiety levels may explain the increased atrophy in those who experienced a life-changing religious experience. The experience itself could be stressful, either at the time or later, or the state of mind that preceded the experience might have been stressful.

The finding of atrophy in people who lack religious belief seems paradoxical. The authors once again invoke stress as an explanation, but presumably this would be valid more for people who were somewhat uncertain in their disbelief rather than in those who were quite confident atheists. Being irreligious is probably more stressult in the USA than it is in Europe.

Alternatively, the cause and effect relationship, if any, could go the other way. Perhaps having hippocampal atrophy predisposes you to have certain kinds of religious attitude. All in all, this study raises many more questions than it answers.

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