Cognition and Religious Coping in Parkinson’s Disease Project

Our current project, which launched in May 2013, is looking at cognition and religious coping in veterans with Parkinson’s Disease. This project is housed mainly at the Boston VA and is in collaboration with BU and the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion.

Our program of research involves the assessment of brain functional connectivity patterns, neurochemistry, cognition, religious experiences/practices in 150 patients with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) (75 left-onset and 75 right-onset) and 75 age-matched non-neurologic controls. Dr. McNamara of Boston University (BU) and the VA New England Healthcare System oversee the entire project. Dr. Durso, Director of Movement Disorder Service at the VA Boston New England Health System, serves as the PD expert. Drs. Harris and Butler serve as consultants. Dr. David Salat of the VA Neuroimaging Center oversees fcMRI data collection and analyses. Dr. Wesley Wildman, Director of the Science and Religion program at BU, acts as a consultant on the project to ensure that our assessments of religion are extensive, nuanced, non-reductionistic, valid and reliable. We are testing the following hypotheses:

H1: Efficient activation of god concepts
PD patients with left-onset disease will exhibit reduced (relative to right-onset patients and non-neurologic controls) or abnormally slowed or absent priming effects for god concepts but not control concepts. This experiment will be an attempted replication of our previous results and will identify patients with particular problems accessing religious concepts. We also expect that those patients with absent priming effects will exhibit different fcMRI connectivity profiles from those patients and controls with normal priming effects (see H2 for more specific fcMRI predictions).

H2: Neural networks for experiential vs doctrinal religious knowledge
Based on results reported in Kapiogiannis et al (2009) and our own work, we hypothesize that PD patients with left-onset disease (and relatively greater right-hemispheric impairment) will exhibit reduced reaction times for doctrinal concepts and reduced (relative to right-onset patients and non-neurologic controls) resting connectivity between prefrontal and inferior parietal networks on the right side. Conversely, patients with right onset disease will exhibit reduced reaction times for experiential religious concepts and reduced connectivity between left-sided inferior temporal gyrus, left-sided precentral gyrus and posterior occipital lobes. We contend that if we find the above or a similar pattern of results; i.e., slowed access to doctrinal concepts with reduced connectivity in right sided prefrontal-parietal networks but preserved access to experiential concepts and no abnormalities in left sided networks AND conversely slowed access to experiential knowledge with reduction in connectivity between precentral-inferior temporal left-sided networks but preserved acccess for doctrinal concepts and no abnormalities in right-sided prefrontal –parietal networks, then we will have demonstrated a double-dissociation for hemispheric processing of doctrinal versus experiential religious concepts. Demonstration of a double dissociation of two types of religious cognition with two separate neural systems will strongly support the claim that we have identified the key neural systems that support these two distinct forms of religious cognition.

H3: Self-report and caregiver reports on religiousness
PD patients with left-onset disease (right forebrain impairment) will evidence fewer/less intense religious practices and religious experiences (by self-report and caregiver report) relative to their right-onset counterparts and to controls. Reduction in religious experiences will be associated with poor or absent priming effects with god concepts and slowed reaction time (RT) effects on experiential vs doctrinal religious knowledge. These individuals will also exhibit different functional connectivity profiles from PD patients with normal access to religious concepts.

H4: On-off levodopa study
Priming for god concepts, but not equally complex control concepts, will be impaired in PD patients (both right- and left-onset but more severe in left-onset patients) when tested ‘off’ levodopa (LD) relative to the ‘on’ state. This effect will test the idea that dopaminergic activity in striatal-prefrontal circuits is required for fluent access to religious cognition.


If you are interested in hearing more about our study or have any questions, please contact our head research assistant, April Minsky.

Primary teaching affiliate
of BU School of Medicine