Science shows prayer alleviates depression

July 12, 2016

HOUSTON — The fifth annual interfaith Medicine and Religion (M&R) Conference was held in Houston this past spring with the theme “Approaching the Sacred: Science, Health and Practices of Care.” Two presentations showed that prayer alleviates depression. This fulfilled what St. Pope John Paul II said: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from... false absolutes.” It also fulfilled what Albert Einstein said: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 

At 60 years, the Institute for Spirituality and Health (ISH), the oldest interfaith organization in the U.S., is located in the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical center in the world. Houston Catholics make up the largest denomination on the ISH board. One of them took the initiative to bring this conference to Houston. ISH co-sponsored this conference with: Harvard University’s Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality, University of Chicago’s Program on Medicine and Religion, St. Louis University’s Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Ohio State University’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, and Duke University’s Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine and Initiative on Theology, Medicine and Culture. Attendees came from around the world representing medicine, chaplaincy and science among others. 

Interfaith presentations and panels covered a broad mix of topics, including bioethics, hospice, saints, end-of-life, directives, nursing, healers and transcendence. But perhaps the most exciting current research is on the neuroscience of the brain. Lisa Miller Ph.D. of Columbia University New York completed groundbreaking magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research as reported in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). It showed that “a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.” Harold Koenig M.D., a Catholic and director for the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, described this as: “the first real hard evidence that religious involvement may actually change the structure of the brain, reducing vulnerability to depression.”
Besides Miller’s research on general religious involvement, presentations were given on the neuroscientific effects of prayer using functional MRI (fMRI). MRI measures brain anatomy, whereas fMRI measures brain activity. 

Peter Boelens M.D. and Ramiro Salas Ph.D. presented their results. The research was conducted at Baylor College of Medicine’s fMRI laboratory. The discursive prayer in the study was a guided meditation referred to as “Healing Prayer.” It consisted of two major prayers that caused a separation of negative emotions from traumatic memories. These were prayers of forgiveness and prayers for the deep healing of the soul. These were conducted for one hour per week for only six weeks.

Depressed subjects were selected who were medication and counseling free for three months and who identified with a childhood trauma. The fMRI scans were done pre-prayer and post-prayer while the subject was cued to recall the memory and emotions of a traumatic event. Psychological tests were performed using well-recognized scientific Hamilton Depression and Anxiety scales and the Life Orientation scale, which is a measure of hope. These were performed pre-prayer, post-prayer and one year later. The research conclusion was that prayer markedly lessened depression for at least a year. There were changes in the brain’s habenula, a structure involved in the signaling of negative events. Prayer also significantly changed the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex integrating the emotions with cognitive control. Self-referential areas, such as the precuneous, were also positively affected.

Though the healing prayer data were dramatic, it was only a pilot study. So researchers hope that further studies may offer an alternative therapy to the current medical treatment of psychotherapy and medication.

Koenig, keynote speaker at last year’s Harvard co-sponsored M&R conference in Cambridge, is one of the world’s experts on medicine and religion having edited the “Handbook of Religion and Health.” He said that the grand experiment of separating religion from medicine, about 200 years ago, has failed.