Spirituality and the Aging Brain

By Newberg, Andrew B. | Generations, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Spirituality and the Aging Brain


Newberg, Andrew B., Generations


Evidence suggests that meditation, prayer, and other related religious and spiritual practices may have significant effects on the aging brain-positive effects that may help improve memory and cognition, mood, and overall mental health.

In the past thirty years, scientists have explored the neurobiological and clinical effects of meditation, prayer, and related spiritual practices and experiences. Initial studies measured changes in autonomic activity, such as heart rate and blood pressure, and electroencephalographic changes associated with such practices. Studies have also looked at changes in hormonal and immunological function. Still other studies have examined the clinical effects of meditation and prayer upon physical and psychological disorders, including hypertension, cancer, depression, and anxiety.

This article reviews the existing knowledge on the neurophysiological and clinical findings associated with religious and spiritual practices and experiences, and explores the potential health effects of these practices with regard to aging.

Neuroimaging: A Window into Meditative States

Functional neuroimaging has opened a new window into the investigation of meditative states by exploring the neurological correlates of these experiences, and a growing number of imaging studies of meditative practices are now available in the literature. The neuroimaging techniques used in these studies include positron emission tomography (PET) (Herzog et al., 1990-1991; Lou et al., 1999); single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) (Newberg et al., 2001; Newberg et al., 2003); and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Lazar et al., 2000; Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007; Beauregard and Paquette, 2006).

Each of these techniques provides different advantages and disadvantages in the study of meditation. Though fMRI has improved resolution over SPECT and the ability of immediate anatomic correlation, it is sometimes difficult to use for studying meditation because of machine noise. There is also the problem of requiring the subject to lie down- an atypical posture for many forms of meditation. The environment should allow subjects to have a strong meditative experience by enabling them to use the postures or actions that are part of their meditation practice. Accommodating subjects' meditation postures is also a problem when using PET imaging (which also provides better resolution than SPECT).

The process of SPECT imaging, however, allows for an injection of a radioactive tracer during a particular meditation or prayer practice, which can then capture the pattern of cerebral blood flow (as it correlates with activity). The problem with SPECT, though, is that only one or two states can be studied in a day. Functional MRI can measure multiple time points during the same scanning session and can capture changes in cerebral blood flow during different meditation practices, or throughout a particular practice. However, fMRI can only evaluate cerebral blood flow, while PET and SPECT can evaluate neurotransmitter systems such as serotonin and dopamine.

Though each of these functional brain imaging techniques offers important advantages and disadvantages for studying meditation, prayer, or other spiritual phenomena, the best approach may depend on a number of individual factors.

Types of Spiritual Practices

There are many specific approaches to meditation and prayer, but they can be divided into two basic categories. The first category is one in which a person attempts to clear all thought from their sphere of attention, and includes practices such as Theravada-a form of meditation in which individuals attempt to reach a subjective state characterized by a sense of no space, no time, and no thought. This state is cognitively experienced as fully integrated and unified: there is no sense of a self and other.

The second category is one in which the subject focuses attention on a particular object, image, phrase, or word, and includes practices such as Transcendental Meditation and various forms of Tibetan Buddhism. …

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