A recent study has indicated that the practice of regular spiritual activity can help alleviate and protect against depression.

The study, which was published online by JAMA Psychiatry, showed that a thickening of the brain cortex was associated with regular meditation or other spiritual or religious practice, and could be the reason why those activities guard against depression – particularly in people who are predisposed to the disease, according to new research led by Lisa Miller, professor and director of Clinical Psychology and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The research programme assessed 103 adults who had either a high or low risk of depression, based on their family history. The subjects were asked how highly they valued religion or spirituality, then brain MRIs were taken, which showed thicker cortices in subjects who placed a high importance on religion or spirituality than those who did not. The relatively thicker cortex was found in precisely the same regions of the brain that had otherwise shown thinning in people at high risk for depression.

The study, published on Dec. 25, 2013, is the first published investigation on the neuro-correlates of the protective effect of spirituality and religion against depression.

“The new study links this extremely large protective benefit of spirituality or religion to previous studies which identified large expanses of cortical thinning in specific regions of the brain in adult offspring of families at high risk for major depression,” Miller said.

Previous studies by Miller and the team published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2012) showed a 90 percent decrease in major depression in high-risk adults who said they highly valued spirituality or religious affiliation. While regular attendance at church was not necessary, a strong personal importance placed on spirituality or religion was most protective against major depression in people who were at high familial risk.

So, how does holding a belief system actually have a physical effect on our brains?

Another unrelated but possibly relevant review of a 20 year old study on consciousness, originally published in Physics of Life Reviews, could provide some answers to this question. The review claims to have discovered quantum vibrations occurring in "microtubules" inside brain neurons, suggesting that "consciousness" is derived from deeper level, finer scale activities inside brain neurons.
Authors Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose suggest that EEG rhythms (brain waves) also derive from deeper level microtubule vibrations, therefore positively affecting these brain microtubule vibrations could benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions.

The original theory was labelled "orchestrated objective reduction" (‘Orch OR’), and was first postulated during the mid-1990s by eminent mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, FRS, Mathematical Institute and Wadham College, University of Oxford, and prominent anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, MD, Anesthesiology, Psychology and Center for Consciousness Studies, The University of Arizona, Tucson. The Penrose and Hameroff collaboration occurred after each had conducted separate research into the field: Penrose from a mathematical perspective which focused particularly on Gödel’s theorem, and Hameroff after the studies of cancer and anesthesia led him to focus on brain structures.

This team of eminent academics suggested that quantum vibrational computations in microtubules, the primary components of cell structure, were "orchestrated" ("Orch") by synaptic inputs and memory stored in microtubules, and terminated by Penrose "objective reduction" (‘OR’), hence "Orch OR." The Orch OR theory was not well-received by their peers as it was considered to be biologically implausible, the brain being too "warm, wet, and noisy" for intricate quantum processes. Since that time, however, warm quantum coherence has been identified in plant photosynthesis, bird brain navigation, our sense of smell, and brain microtubules, and Hameroff and Penrose claim that "the evidence now clearly supports Orch OR. Our new paper updates the evidence, clarifies Orch OR quantum bits, or "qubits," as helical pathways in microtubule lattices, rebuts critics, and reviews 20 testable predictions of Orch OR published in 1998 — of these, six are confirmed and none refuted."

The new review, conducted by a group led by Anirban Bandyopadhyay, PhD, at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan (and now at MIT), discovered warm temperature quantum vibrations in microtubules inside brain neurons, corroborating the earlier theory.

The underlying origins of EEG rhythms have previously remained a mystery but the new findings suggests that EEG rhythms also derive from deeper level microtubule vibrations, and introducing a new aspect to the original theory, that microtubule quantum vibrations (e.g. in megahertz) appear to interfere and produce much slower EEG "beat frequencies. Additional work from the laboratory of Roderick G. Eckenhoff, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that anesthesia, which selectively erases consciousness while sparing non-conscious brain activities, acts via microtubules in brain neurons.

Clinical trials have indicated that there could be a useful application for the new research, as brief brain stimulation aimed at microtubule resonances with megahertz mechanical vibrations using transcranial ultrasound have resulted in improvements in mood, and may prove useful against Alzheimer’s disease and brain injury in the future. Lead author Stuart Hameroff concludes, "Orch OR is the most rigorous, comprehensive and successfully-tested theory of consciousness ever put forth. From a practical standpoint, treating brain microtubule vibrations could benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions."

On a more spiritual level, science appears to be providing more and more evidence of the physiological essence of "consciousness," a concept which had been previously embraced only by philosophers and mystics, and regarded by scientists as intangible and immeasurable.

"The origin of consciousness reflects our place in the universe, the nature of our existence. Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain?" ask Hameroff and Penrose in the current review. "This opens a potential Pandora’s Box, but our theory accommodates both these views, suggesting consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules, protein polymers inside brain neurons, which both govern neuronal and synaptic function, and connect brain processes to self-organizing processes in the fine scale, ‘proto-conscious’ quantum structure of reality."

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