Social isolation impacts brain function in significant ways

Social isolation rewires the brain in myriad ways, potentially leading to anxiety, depression, addiction, and other behavioral changes. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2021, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health. 

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

Humans are a highly social species who crave social contact for their well-being. Loneliness induced by social isolation can cause significant neurological and behavioral changes that may lead to health issues. Given the widespread experience of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need to better understand and prevent the long-term effects of social isolation. Scientists are just beginning to understand these changes and hope to find ways to curb their negative effects. 

Today’s new findings show:

  • Young mice exposed to chronic social isolation demonstrated a long-term deficit in social recognition and an altered circuit between the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens (Yong-Seok Lee, Seoul National University College of Medicine).
  • Social isolation in adolescent mice led to increased cocaine use and relapse rates, as well as sex-dependent structural changes in the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens (Lisa A. Briand, Temple University).
  • Social isolation in young rats led to an increase in weight, anxiety, and dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens, but exercise mitigated anxiety and weight gain (Enrique U. Pérez-Cardona, University of Puerto Rico at Carolina).
  • Lower social rank in mice is predictive of greater alcohol intake, but social isolation increases intake for all mice — regardless of rank — and increases the excitability of the basolateral amygdala (Reesha R. Patel, Salk Institute for Biological Studies).
  • A socially monogamous prairie vole model mimicked human responses after the loss of a partner; these behavioral changes may be linked to disturbances in the brain’s oxytocin system (Adam S. Smith, University of Kansas).

“This research shows that social isolation impacts many brain regions and affects many different behaviors, resulting in increased risk for disease,” said Alexa H. Veenema, the director of the Neurobiology of Social Behavior Laboratory and an associate professor at Michigan State University. “The pandemic has had a tremendous effect on our mental health. This research will provide us with insights about which specific neural circuits mediate the behavioral effects induced by social isolation. We can then find ways to restore these neural circuits, counteracting the consequences of social isolation”

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