Why do we feel lonely? Neuroscience may have answer for this unexplained phenomenon.

cost of social isolation

In recent years, a vast scientific literature has emerged linking loneliness to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse. There is even a growing body of epidemiological work showing that loneliness makes you more likely to fall ill: it seems to prompt the chronic release of hormones that suppress healthy immune function. Biochemical changes from loneliness can accelerate the spread of cancer, hasten heart disease and Alzheimer’s, or simply drain the most vital among us of the will to go on. The ability to measure and detect it could help identify those at risk and pave the way for new kinds of interventions. 

The mental-health impacts of covid-19 play out on a global scale. Psychiatrists are already worried about rising rates of suicide and drug overdoses in the US, and social isolation, along with anxiety and chronic stress.

how loneliness might work in the human brain

Where would you even begin to look in the brain for the changes brought about by such a subjective feeling?

Specific populations of neurons in rodent brains that seem to be associated with a measurable need for social interaction a hunger that can be manipulated by directly stimulating the neurons themselves.

the Stanford University lab of Karl Deisseroth.

Deisseroth had pioneered optogenetics, a technique in which genetically engineered, light-sensitive proteins are implanted into rodent brain cells; researchers can then turn individual neurons on or off simply by shining lights on them though fiber-optic cables. Though the technique is far too invasive to use in people as well as an injection into the brain to deliver the proteins, it requires threading the fiber-optic cable through the skull and directly into the brain it allows researchers to tweak neurons in live, freely moving rodents and then observe their behaviour.

Scientists had long known that stimulating the amygdala as a whole could cause an animal to cower in fear. But by following the maze of connections in and out of different parts of the amygdala,

Insights into the circuitry of loneliness in the brain might also shed some light on addiction, which isolated animals are more prone to, according to some research. The evidence appears particularly strong in adolescent animals, which seem to be even more sensitive to the effects of social isolation than older or younger ones. Humans between the ages of 16 and 24 are the most likely to report feeling lonely, and this is also the age when many mental-health disorders first begin to manifest.

Some internet surveys report no overall increase in loneliness since the pandemic began, but what about people at most risk of mental-health problems? When they are isolated, at what point does it begin to endanger their psychological and physical well-being? And what types of interventions might protect them from that danger? Once we can measure loneliness, we can begin to find out, making it far easier to design targeted interventions.

Typically understated language of science, signals the birth of a whole new field of research which confronts the behaviour of human beings since their evolution and with the emergence new technologies.

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