Importance: We previously reported a 90% decreased risk in major depression, assessed prospectively, in adult offspring of depressed probands who reported that religion or spirituality was highly important to them. Frequency of church attendance was not significantly related to depression risk. Our previous brain imaging findings in adult offspring in these high-risk families also revealed large expanses of cortical thinning across the lateral surface of the right cerebral hemisphere.
Objective: To determine whether high-risk adults who reported high importance of religion or spirituality had thicker cortices than those who reported moderate or low importance of religion or spirituality and whether this effect varied by family risk status.
Design, setting, and participants: Longitudinal, retrospective cohort, familial study of 103 adults (aged 18-54 years) who were the second- or third-generation offspring of depressed (high familial risk) or nondepressed (low familiar risk) probands (first generation). Religious or spiritual importance and church attendance were assessed at 2 time points during 5 years, and cortical thickness was measured on anatomical images of the brain acquired with magnetic resonance imaging at the second time point.
Main outcomes and measures: Cortical thickness in the parietal regions by risk status.
Results: Importance of religion or spirituality, but not frequency of attendance, was associated with thicker cortices in the left and right parietal and occipital regions, the mesial frontal lobe of the right hemisphere, and the cuneus and precuneus in the left hemisphere, independent of familial risk. In addition, the effects of importance on cortical thickness were significantly stronger in the high-risk than in the low-risk group, particularly along the mesial wall of the left hemisphere, in the same region where we previously reported a significant thinner cortex associated with a familial risk of developing depressive illness. We note that these findings are correlational and therefore do not prove a causal association between importance and cortical thickness.
Conclusions and relevance: 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, possibly by expanding a cortical reserve that counters to some extent the vulnerability that cortical thinning poses for developing familial depressive illness.