Researchers identify the brain circuit to obtain spirituality


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More than 80% of people around the world consider themselves religious or spiritual. But research on the neurosciences of spirituality and religiosity has been scarce. Previous studies have used functional neuroimaging, in which an individual undergoes a brain scan while performing a task to see which areas of the brain are illuminated. But these correlative studies have given an irregular and often inconsistent picture of spirituality.

A new study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital takes a new approach to mapping spirituality and religiosity and finds that spiritual acceptance can be located in a specific brain circuit. This brain circuit focuses on the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a region of the brainstem involved in numerous functions, such as fear conditioning, pain modulation, altruistic behaviors, and unconditional love. The team’s findings are published in Biological Psychiatry.

“Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental and deeply woven neurobiological dynamics in our neurological tissue,” said the corresponding author, Michael Ferguson, Ph.D., principal investigator at Brigham’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics. “We were surprised to see that this brain circuit for spirituality focuses on one of the most evolutionarily conserved structures in the brain.”

To conduct their study, Ferguson and colleagues used a technique called injury network mapping that allows researchers to assign complex human behaviors to specific brains. based on the location of brain injuries in patients. The team took advantage of a previously published data set that included 88 neurosurgical patients who were being operated on to remove a brain tumor. Injury locations were distributed throughout the brain. Patients completed a survey that included questions about spiritual acceptance before and after surgery. The team validated their results using a second data set of more than 100 patients with injuries caused by penetrating head trauma during combat during the Vietnam War. These participants also completed questionnaires that included questions about religiosity, such as “Do you consider yourself religious? Yes or No?”.

Of the 88 neurosurgical patients, 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief before and after neurosurgical resection of the brain tumor, 29 showed an increase, and 29 showed no change. By mapping injury networks, the team found that self-declared spirituality mapped to a specific PAG-centered brain circuit. The circuit included positive nodes and negative nodes: lesions that altered these respective nodes decreased or increased self-reported spiritual beliefs. Results on the religiosity of the second set of data aligned with these findings. In addition, in a review of the literature, researchers found several case reports of patients becoming hyperreligious after experiencing brain damage affecting the negative nodes of the circuit.

Injury locations associated with other neurological and psychiatric symptoms are also intersected with the spirituality circuit. Specifically, injuries that cause parkinsonism crossed positive areas of the circuit, just as it did associated with a decrease in spirituality. Injuries that cause delusions and alien limb syndrome intersect with negative regions, associated with increased spirituality and religiosity.

“It’s important to keep in mind that these overlays can be helpful in understanding shared functions and associations, but these results should not be overly interpreted,” Ferguson said. “For example, our results do not imply that religion is a hoax, that historical religious figures suffer from alien limb syndrome, or that Parkinson’s disease arises due to a lack of religious faith. Instead, our results they point to the deep roots of spiritual beliefs in a part of our brain involved in many important functions. “

The authors point out that the data sets they used do not provide rich information about the patient’s upbringing, which may influence spiritual beliefs, and that the patients in both data sets came from predominantly Christian cultures. To understand the generalization of their results, they would have to replicate their study in many contexts. The team is also interested in untangling religiosity and spirituality to understand the brain circuits that may be causing differences. In addition, Ferguson would like to seek clinical and translational applications for results, including understanding the role that spirituality and compassion can play in clinical treatment.

“Only recently have medicine and spirituality split into each other. There seems to be this perennial union between healing and spirituality between cultures and civilizations,” Ferguson said. “I’m interested in the degree to which we understand circuits could help develop scientifically sound and clinically translatable questions about how to cure and they can co – inform each other “.

Negative spiritual beliefs associated with more pain and worse physical and mental health

More information:
Michael A. Ferguson et al, A neural circuit of spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain injuries, Biological Psychiatry (2021). DOI: 10.1016 / j.biopsych.2021.06.016

Citation: Researchers Identify Brain Circuit for Spirituality (2021, July 1) Retrieved July 1, 2021 from

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