Radiology, religion cross paths at University of Penn

November 1, 2006

Researchers hope to unlock spiritual mysteries using functional SPECT and PET techniques

Researchers hope to unlock spiritual mysteries using functional SPECT and PET techniques

While interest in the brain/mind connection goes back millennia, new attention is being paid to using functional imaging to chart brain activity during religious or spiritual practices. The University of Pennsylvania is on the cutting edge with its Center for Spirituality and the Mind.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a nuclear medicine physician and director of the center, said the center evolved from work initiated in Penn's department of radiology to encourage researchers from the fields of medicine, pastoral care, religious studies, social work, nursing, and bioethics to expand knowledge of how spirituality may affect the human brain.

The first study at the center, begun in September, focuses less on spiritual transformation and more on the brain's "muscle power." Researchers want to determine if meditation improves cognitive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment or symptoms of early Alzheimer's disease. Study participants will learn a particular kind of meditation called Kirtan Kriya, identified as one of the most fundamental types. It's a repeated chanting of sounds and finger movements designed to help the mind focus and become sharper.

Subjects will perform the meditation program every day for eight weeks to see if the relaxation technique can change the brain's response to different tasks. SPECT imaging will be performed before, during, and after the study.

"We would love to see changes in the resting state as well as the activation state, which would tell us that training affects a more permanent change in the basil function of the brain. Subjects can then utilize those parts of the brain in a more efficient manner," said Newberg, an associate professor of radiology, psychiatry, and religious studies.

If this kind of meditation is successful in helping patients with neurological problems, it could then someday become a low-cost addition to current therapy, he said.

SPECT imaging is ideal for meditation studies, Newberg said. Functional MRI could be problematic with novice subjects, and even experienced meditators have had difficulty with scanner noise. Even though SPECT has limitations in temporal and spatial resolution compared with PET, Newberg and colleagues have found it sufficient for their needs, particularly because technetium-99m bicisate, a blood flow tracer, has a faster uptake than FDG. Essentially, any of the various functional brain imaging techniques suffice, and the choice depends on the context of the study.

Newberg and colleagues have used PET and SPECT to study the cerebral activity of subjects during religious and spiritual practices including Tibetan Buddhist meditation, centering prayer, transcendental meditation, yoga meditation, and speaking in tongues. A study in development proposes to compare these various types of practices to determine the similarities and differences from a neurophysiological perspective.

Generally, meditation increases activity in the frontal lobes, which help focus attention, while decreasing activity in the parietal lobes, which orient one's body in space and time. Interestingly, preliminary results of subjects speaking in tongues showed that the language area of the brain was not activated during the verbal outbursts, Newberg said.

One ongoing longitudinal study at Penn uses PET to measure cerebral metabolism and SPECT to gauge dopamine and serotonin activity in subjects participating in a 30-day meditation retreat. In another study, Penn researchers piggybacked onto an ongoing National Institutes of Health study examining the effects of Iyengar yoga on hypertension. Using SPECT imaging, researchers seek to determine if such a program results in long-term effects on the brain's basic functioning, but they also want to assess how brain physiology changes during meditation in novice practitioners. Preliminary data show no changes in baseline brain function but increased activity in certain areas during the practice itself, Newberg said.

Newberg has his eyes on another NIH-funded study. This one uses SPECT to detail the effects of cognitive therapy on depression. He has proposed to include meditation as a therapy for depression and to compare its results with those of standard psychotherapy. A new project being developed will use functional neuroimaging to test the hypothesis that religiosity enhances human well-being via its direct support of character strengths as well as its effects on neurobehavioral systems that support development and maintenance of character strengths.

So far, results indicate a consistent pattern of brain activity in people who focus their attention in attempts to reach spiritual highs. Does this mean that people are hard-wired for God? The term hard-wired suggests a purposeful design, which is out of the realm of neuroscience to answer, Newberg said. From his vantage point, the brain's two primary functions from either a biological or evolutionary perspective are self-maintenance and self-transcendence. Religion also performs these two functions.

"So, from the brain's perspective, religion is a wonderful tool because it helps the brain perform its primary functions. Unless the human brain undergoes some fundamental change in its function, religion and God will be here for a very long time," he said.