Loneliness changes our brains

Loneliness changes our brains

Whether we are isolated due to COVID-19 lockdowns or any other reason, feeling lonely is a common response which can affect our brains.

Research published in Nature Communications has found that the brains of those who report feeling lonely look and respond differently to the brains of people who don’t.

It seems like persistent feelings of isolation can affect the size of different areas of the brain, as well as how those areas communicate with the rest of the brain.

The researchers examined the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, genetics, and psychological self-assessments of approximately 40,000 middle-aged and older adults available in the UK Biobank: a database available to scientists around the world.

In comparing the data of participants who reported feeling lonely against those who didn’t, scientists have found several differences in the brains of the lonely.

These differences are centered around a set of brain regions called the default network. These regions are involved in reminiscing, planning the future, imagination, and thinking about others, and we use this network to remember the past, envision the future, and think about the hypothetical present.

The brains of lonely participants were found to have default networks that were more strongly networked and contained a larger volume of grey matter.

This may be due to lonely people being more likely to use their imagination, past memories, or future hopes to overcome their social isolation.

“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences,” said lead author Nathan Spreng from the Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) at Canada’s MacGill University.

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Loneliness has been identified as a growing health problem, with previous studies showing that older people experiencing loneliness have a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

“We are just beginning to understand the impact of loneliness on the brain,” said Danilo Bzdok, a researcher at the Neuro and the study’s senior author. 

“Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us better appreciate the urgency of reducing loneliness in today’s society.”

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