Loneliness Changes the Brain

MRI of the Brain

Loneliness Changes the Brain

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Loneliness is a complex issue, not least because it is influenced most by how someone feels about being alone, rather than the actual amount of time spent alone or with reduced social contact.  Someone can feel lonely when outwardly it may appear that they have sufficient social interaction, and equally, someone with very few social contacts may not report significant feelings of loneliness.

There is a strong connection between feelings of loneliness and negative impacts on physical and mental health, including evidence that it increases vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease-related dementias.  Lonely older adults are 1.64 times more likely to develop clinical dementia than persons who do not self-report as lonely.

Therefore, research into loneliness is critically important to better understand why there are differences in individual experiences and outcomes.

This article shares some of the findings from a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications by a team of Canadian researchers from the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital.  The research looked at the brains of lonely individuals and has identified some key differences from those who don’t experience loneliness.

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What Does Loneliness Look Like in the Brain?

The researchers used data from the UK Biobank imaging-genetics for approximately 40,000 people aged between 40–69 years along with demographic characteristics and a single binary yes or no question “Do you often feel lonely?”

The approach taken was to systematically chart the brain signature differences between those who identified as feeling lonely versus those who did not report feelings of loneliness.

The results show a strong linkage with a region of the brain known as the default mode network or default network.  The default network is a collection of brain regions that typically show higher levels of activity when we are at rest awake, but not involved in any specific physical or mental exercise. The idea of a default network, however, is not universally accepted; with much more research required to fully understand the network’s exact functions.  Although it is widely agreed that activity in these brain regions is associated with daydreaming, recalling memories, and thinking about the future.

In the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the lonelier people, the default network had stronger connections within the network and it contained more grey matter when compared with the people who did not identify as lonely.

This picture is of an MRI which highlights areas of activity in the default network with an intense orange colouring.

Picture Credit: neuroscientificallychallenged.com, Know Your Brain: Default Mode Network

The researchers discovered differences in another area of the brain called the fornix. The fornix is a bundle of nerve fibres that carry signals from the hippocampus to the default network and is thought to support our ability to imagine very detailed and rich pictures in our minds.  In the research the fornix was found to be better preserved in lonely people.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications, Article number: 6393 (2020)

The researchers conclude that lonely people may make greater use of these regions of the brain because they may be using imagination, memories of the past, or hopes for the future to overcome their social isolation.

The paper identified that further work is necessary to explore the differences between the sexes and the neurological response to loneliness.  The research showed that loneliness appeared to be more strongly expressed in the brains of men than women.

You can read the full research paper in Nature by accessing via this link.

Key Takeaways

Reading this research made me think of the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, where he has a ball named Wilson that he talks to and uses for companionship while stranded on a desert island.  Recently I have found myself talking to my dog more, even though she clearly cannot have a proper conversation.  This instinct to maintain conversation and stimulate our thoughts, even when alone is very intriguing.

It is a very scientific assessment, so difficult for most people to interpret but, I think it does provide some interesting insight into:

  • The power our brains have to protect us from unpleasant experiences.
  • The importance of positive internal self-talk and feelings.
  • How our imagination and thoughts can be more vivid when we are alone.

As I said in the intro, the more that we can understand about the societal and physiological aspects of loneliness, the more we will be able to support people to enhance their quality of life.

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