Do Mantras Help Brain Injury Patients Heal? Doctors Differ

An experimental treatment - requiring the chanting of the Mahamrityunjaya mantra for patients suffering from severe brain injury - was approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the apex body formulating scientific medical research in India, a report in The Caravan reveals.

The study, which was performed on patients suffering from severe brain injury undergoing treatment at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi, required for the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, a chant dedicated to Lord Shiva, to be recited 1.25 lakh times to them over a period of seven days.

The Study

40 patients, who were divided into two groups of twenty, and were in a state of severe coma were observed in the study. The mantras were recited to only one of the groups.

The prayers were commenced within 24 hours of the injury, says the report.

The medical outcomes of both groups was compared to measure the impact of intercessory prayer on patients with severe brain injury.

It’s also worth mentioning that the project, conducted from October 2016 to April 2019 at the RML hospital for nearly three years by Dr Ashok Kumar was earlier rejected by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) ethics committee, where Dr Kumar had worked then, as being ‘unscientific’.

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The Final Results

Although the final results of the study are being compiled, the author of the study, Dr Kumar has gone on record to claim that “patients for whom intercessory prayer was done showed a dramatic improvement in the Glasgow coma scale and the functional independent measure.”

But Dr Ajay Choudhary, who is Dr Kumar’s project guide and the head of neurology at the hospital, has been diplomatic in his response to the report. “The preliminary results don’t emphatically indicate that intercessory prayer helped, but till the final results are in, it cannot be ruled out,” he says.

The subject of intercessory prayers and their impact on the brain has earlier too been the subject of discussion. A previous study found that gayatri mantra helps students in improving scores. There is on going research at NIMHANS on the power of chanting OM and the brain. However, a study being performed on severe brain injury just seems to have heightened the stakes.

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What Do Doctors Say?

Fit spoke to two reputed doctors who gave differing views on the study.

Dr Manjari Tripathi, a neurologist at AIIMS says that for any study to be scientifically valid and free of bias, it has to be randomised into active chanting for a listening group and sham chanting for another listener group.

Besides, the allocation has to be concealed and even the person accessing the outcomes has to be blinded to the allocated group.

She also emphasizes that the markers of success should only be clinical improvement.

"Markers of success should be clinical improvement as accessed by the blinded non-involved accessor who should not be the principal investigator. Surrogate markers like cytokines; FMRI in brain etc do not matter." - Dr Manjari Tripathi, Neurologist, AIIMS 

When asked if intercessory prayer can also benefit another person, Dr Tripathi says that several studies have been done on the matter both in the West and India, but they are not conducted in a rigorous manner.

"Mantras are soothing at best. If words have power, yes, hypothetically... no harm using them to heal... contextual to spiritual beliefs. But at this point, scientific level 1 evidence studies are wanting." - Dr Tripathi

To the question of whether it would be recommended for family members to chant for a loved one undergoing a severe brain injury, Dr Tripathi says that caregivers often put customised music for patients but she doesn’t know if it works.

“We do tell them to keep talking normally to the patient and converse lovingly to them and make them listen to patient’s favorite songs in hope of recovery,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Dr B.N. Gangadhar, Director at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) reiterates that the project has been funded by the best funding agency in India for medical research (ICMR).

"The project has been ethically reviewed. The design is about the best within limitations like numbers in each group and standardisation of interventions." - Dr B.N. Gangadhar, Director, NIMHANS

Dr. Gangadhar informs that the benefits of chanting have been studied in cardiac diseases and infective illnesses, but reiterates that the analysis of this particular report on head injuries is still due.

"There are researches published in some leading journals that support the benefits of intercessory prayer, albeit not conclusively." - Dr B.N. Gangadhar, Director, NIMHANS

Dr. Gangadhar believes that prayer by the individual or by others for results in the patient are customary practices in all cultures. And while he understands that the scientific examination of any faith-based practice has challenges both by way of available methodology and sociopolitical reactions, it still deserves to be studied.

"Two opinions exist, to test or not to test. The latter stems from two ends viz., believers and non-believers. Both have a confirmed position that it works and doesn’t respectively, and hence deserves no research examination. However, a middle group wants to test and confirm it one way or the other for enlightening the public. And it is needed today." - Dr B.N. Gangadhar, Director, NIMHANS

While the results of the study are still awaited, for now, one thing is for sure - that this intersection of faith and science has a lot of room for intelligent debate.

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