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Health & Balance

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Can Prayer Heal?

Does prayer have the power to heal? Scientists have some surprising answers.

God Grabs Headlines continued...

Even the NIH -- which "refused to even review a study with the word prayer in it four years ago" -- is now funding one prayer study through its Frontier Medicine Initiative. Although it's not his study, Krucoff says it's nevertheless evidence that "things are changing."

Krucoff has been studying prayer and spirituality since 1996 -- and practicing it much longer in his patient care. Earlier studies of the subject were small and often flawed, he says. Some were in the form of anecdotal reports: "descriptions of miracles ... in patients with cancer, pain syndromes, heart disease," he says.

"[Today,] we're seeing systematic investigations -- clinical research -- as well as position statements from professional societies supporting this research, federal subsidies from the NIH, funding from Congress," he tells WebMD. "All of these studies, all the reports, are remarkably consistent in suggesting the potential measurable health benefit associated with prayer or spiritual interventions."

Wired for Spirituality?

For the past 30 years, Harvard scientist Herbert Benson, MD, has conducted his own studies on prayer. He focuses specifically on meditation, the Buddhist form of prayer, to understand how mind affects body. All forms of prayer, he says, evoke a relaxation response that quells stress, quiets the body, and promotes healing.

Prayer involves repetition -- of sounds, words -- and therein lies its healing effects, says Benson. "For Buddhists, prayer is meditation. For Catholics, it's the rosary. For Jews, it's called dovening. For Protestants, it's centering prayer. Every single religion has its own way of doing it."

Benson has documented on MRI brain scans the physical changes that take place in the body when someone meditates. When combined with recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, what emerges is a picture of complex brain activity:

As an individual goes deeper and deeper into concentration, intense activity begins taking place in the brain's parietal lobe circuits -- those that control a person's orientation in space and establish distinctions between self and the world. Benson has documented a "quietude" that then envelops the entire brain.

At the same time, frontal and temporal lobe circuits -- which track time and create self-awareness -- become disengaged. The mind-body connection dissolves, Benson says.

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