Positive changes in the brains of retreat participants

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RetreatsMore Americans than ever are turning to spiritual, meditative and religious retreats as a way to reset their daily life and enhance wellbeing. Now researchers at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University have shown there are changes in the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brains of retreat participants.

“Since serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain, it helps us understand why these practices result in powerful, positive emotional experiences,” said Dr Andrew Newberg, director of research in the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health.

“Our study showed significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the seven-day retreat, which could help prime participants for the spiritual experiences that they reported.”

The post-retreat scans revealed decreases in dopamine transporter (5%-8%) and serotonin transporter (6.5%) binding, which could make more of the neurotransmitters available to the brain.

This is associated with positive emotions and spiritual feelings. In particular, dopamine is responsible for mediating cognition, emotion and movement, while serotonin is involved in emotional regulation and mood.

The study, funded by the Fetzer Institute, included 14 Christian participants ranging in age from 24 to 76. They attended an Ignatian retreat based on the spiritual exercises developed by St Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuits.

Following a morning mass, participants spent most of the day in silent contemplation, prayer and reflection and attended a daily meeting with a spiritual director for guidance and insights. After returning, study subjects also completed a number of surveys which showed marked improvements in their perceived physical health, tension and fatigue. They also reported increased feelings of self-transcendence which correlated to the change in dopamine binding.

“In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers,” said Newberg. “Our team is curious about which aspects of the retreat caused the changes in the neurotransmitter systems and if different retreats would produce different results. Hopefully, future studies can answer these questions.”

Spiritual retreats are a commonly used intensive program of meditation and prayer, along with other elements, designed to provide participants with opportunities for spiritual and psychological growth. While individual elements of such retreats have been studied, there have been no reports in the literature regarding the neurophysiological effects of these retreats. This preliminary study presents the first data we are aware of on the neurophysiological effects, particularly those related to dopamine and serotonin, in a group of participants undergoing an intensive seven-day spiritual retreat. We used DaTscan single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) in 14 individuals before and closely following participation in a seven-day spiritual retreat. We observed significant decreases in dopamine transporter binding in the basal ganglia and significant decreases in serotonin transporter binding in the midbrain after the retreat program. Participating in the retreat also resulted in significant changes in a variety of psychological and spiritual measures. We also report the relationship between neurophysiological and subjective measures along with a discussion of potential methodological challenges for future studies.

Andrew B Newberg, Nancy Wintering, David B Yaden, Li Zhong, Brendan Bowen, Noah Averick, Daniel A Monti

Thomas Jefferson University material
Religion, Brain & Behaviour abstract

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