In a new study by McGill University, scientists show the effects of loneliness in the brain, shedding light on how a nervous “signature” might reflect our response to feelings of social isolation.
Researchers have demonstrated the importance of understanding how isolation affects our health through the study. They discovered a type of signature in the brains of lonely people that makes them distinct in different ways, based on differences in the size of different brain regions as well as based on how these regions communicate with each other via brain networks.
A team of researchers examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), genetics, and psychological self-assessments of nearly 40,000 middle-aged and elderly adults who volunteered to have their information listed on the UK Biobank: an open database available to health scholars around the world. Then they compared the MRI data of the participants who reported they often felt lonely with those who did not.
Researchers found several differences in the brains of single people. These brain manifestations center on what’s called the virtual network: a set of brain regions involved in internal thoughts such as memory retrieval, future planning, imagining and thinking about others.
The researchers found that the VPNs of lonely people were bound together more strongly, and surprisingly, the volume of gray matter in the virtual network areas was larger.
“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased toward internally directed thoughts such as memories or imagining social experiences,” said Nathan Spring of The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) at McGill University and lead author of the study. “We know that these cognitive abilities are mediated by By brain regions of the virtual network.
Loneliness is increasingly recognized as a major health problem, and previous studies have shown that older adults with loneliness have a higher risk of developing cognitive decline and dementia. According to the study published in Nature Communications, understanding how loneliness appears in the brain could be key to preventing neurological diseases and developing better treatments.
“We are just beginning to understand the effect of loneliness on the brain. Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us better appreciate the necessity of reducing loneliness in today’s society,” said Danilo Buzdock, a researcher at The Neuro and the Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Quebec, and a senior author of the study.
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