Field of Science

Mainline Protestant brains rot slowest

For the past 8 years, the folks at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University Medical Center, North Carolina, have been scanning the brains of a small band of elderly people. They're trying to discover whether changes in the volume of the hippocampus, a small part deep in the brain, are linked to late-onset depression and dementia.

The hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory, and it's known that it decays at an ever-increasing pace as we age. Of course, there are plenty other things you can do with a dataset like this, and (sponsored by the Templeton Foundation) one of the things they've done is to see which religious groups lose it fastest.

Well, there was no difference in brain rot between those who went to church more often and those who did not, or between those who did a lot of private religious stuff and those who did not.

But there was a significant difference according to affiliation.

As you can see in the graph, the rot was slowest in mainline Protestants, faster in born-again Protestants and Catholics, and faster still all in those with no religion. The group who fared worst were those who had experienced a 'life-changing' religious event sometime in the past.

The authors put this down to the stress of being in a minority group. It's known that high levels of stress can increase the rate of hippocampal rot.

In this part of the South-Eastern USA, mainline Protestants are the overwhelming majority - and other evidence shows that being in a minority can make life stressful for the non-religious.

Similarly, having a 'road to Damascus' type of life-changing religious experience can mark you out as an oddity, and someone to be shunned.

So far so reasonable. However, people with 'other' religious affiliations (presumably mostly Jewish) held onto their grey matter just as well as Mainline protestants. Surely these religious minorities should feel at least as much exclusion as Catholics?

And no, in case you were wondering. They don't tell us who had the biggest brains at the start of the experiment!

ResearchBlogging.orgOwen AD, Hayward RD, Koenig HG, Steffens DC, & Payne ME (2011). Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life. PloS one, 6 (3) PMID: 21479219

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I like the unlabelled vertical axis.

  2. How small was the group of elderly subjects? I'm curious to see if the results are replicated by non-Templeton researchers.

  3. Crap! I have had life changing religious experiences AND I have no religion. I can feel my hippocampus wither as I type. Damn.

  4. William - yeah :) the axis is the beta co-efficient from the regression. I was thinking of putting that or 'arbitrary units', but in the end decided that nobody would care. Heh. Just goes to show...

  5. Andy: There were 268 subjects in total. The researchers aren't Templeton as such - the study itself is being paid for by other agencies because it's mainly about depression. Templeton just paid for this analysis.

  6. Maybe the headline should be the "Brains of People-who-are-affirmed-as-being-part-of-the-in-crowd" rot slowest. I am intrigued by the meditation and epilepsy effects.

  7. I am so screwed. Started out Catholic, had a life changing religious event, became a born again protestant, and am now an atheist!

    No wonder I can't remember anything and feel dumber every year. Sometimes I feel like Homer Simpson in the episode where he listens to those language tapes, becomes insufferable, and then they take the tapes away. And when looking for a spoon for ice cream he says "I need the thing, dig". That is me.


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