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Alzheimer’s Disease and Religion: A Collaboration Between Neuroscience and Theology at Boston University

Posted Jan 14 2011 7:39am
Patrick McNamara, Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Boston University’s School of Medicine, worked with many Alzheimer’s patients during the early 1990’s. He had seen “religion bring solace in the face of a devastating neurological condition.”...

By Max Wallack
Alzheimer's Reading Room

In the late 1990’s, when Dr. McNamara was working with Parkinson’s patients, he was surprised to find that they rarely relied on religious faith to cope with their illness. He was further intrigued by the fact that these Parkinson’s patients had been no less religious than the general population before they became ill. This led Dr. McNamara “into the nascent community of researchers using science to study religion.”


In an article published BU Today, The Neuroscientist and the Theologian , tells how Dr. McNamara joined forces with Dr. Wesley Wildman, an Associate Professor of philosophy, theology and ethics in the School of Theology. Wildman had been a physicist and mathematician before becoming a religion scholar, and he "has continued to study and write about the intersection of the two fields.”


In 2007, McNamara and Wilder founded the nonprofit Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion . Their work encompasses the scientific study of religion and the ramifications of that research. Next year. McNamara and Wilder plan to produce the first scientific journal in this field, entitled Religion, Brain, and Behavior.

According to McNamara,
“Biological approaches -- including genetics, neuroscience, the cognitive sciences, and the psychological sciences – are revolutionizing our understanding of religion. The institute is unique for trying to grapple with the wider implications of what science is telling us about religion.”

McNamara also works at the VA Boston Healthcare System at Jamaica Plain. His research has led to being able to identify the area of the brain that is activated when people think about religion. This research “has clinical import: knowing the brain circuitry involved in religious cognition could lead to more targeted treatments for people who suffer from certain psychoses.”

These two researchers plan to involve colleagues from numerous other disciplines in their work, including behavioral economists, historians, anthropologists, religious scholars, art historians, and other specialists.

I can only hope that this type of multidisciplinary approach may unlock some key to the workings of the human brain and shed some enlightenment on the approaching tsunami of Alzheimer’s Disease!



Max Wallack is a student at Boston University Academy. His great grandmother, Gertrude, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Max is the founder of PUZZLES TO REMEMBER. PTR is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and veterans institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

Original content Max Wallack, the Alzheimer's Reading Room


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