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.
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”
“The way we study the brain has changed fundamentally in recent years,” says first author Katrin Amunts, Human Brain Project (HBP) Scientific Director, Director of the C. and O. Vogt-Institute of Brain Research, Düsseldorf and Director at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at Research Centre Jülich. “In the past, separate communities have often focused on specific aspects of neuroscience, and the problem was always how to link the different worlds, for example, in order to explain a certain cognitive function in terms of the underlying neurobiology.”
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba show that increased activation of the bilateral prefrontal cortex accompanies improvements to mood and cognitive function after only a brief bout of moderate-intensity running.
Running may be a useful activity to undertake for better mental health. University of Tsukuba researchers have found that only ten minutes of moderate-intensity running increases local blood flow to the various loci in the bilateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that plays an important role in controlling mood and executive functions. These findings may contribute to the development of a wider range of treatment recommendations to benefit mental health.
I know I talk a lot about exercise and how it benefits the brain as much as the body. But, don’t forget that good nutrition also counts. Consider these as the ‘neuro-nine’ foods that can help you strengthen your neuroplasticity.
As regular readers know, I have a history of Alzheimer’s Disease or some form of dementia on both sides of my family, so I entertain a strong interest in the subject, particularly since I am a senior citizen.
A brain disorder that mimics symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease has been defined with recommended diagnostic criteria and guidelines for advancing future research on the condition. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center and scientists from several National Institutes of Health-funded institutions, in collaboration with international peers, described the newly named pathway to dementia, limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy, or LATE, in a report published today in the journal Brain.
“We proposed a new name to increase recognition and research for this common cause of dementia, the symptoms of which mimic Alzheimer’s dementia but is not caused by plaques and tangles (the buildup of beta amyloid proteins that Alzheimer’s produces). Rather, LATE dementia is caused by deposits of a protein called TDP-43 in the brain,” said Dr. Julie Schneider, senior author of the Brain paper and associate director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Continue reading →
I have spent a lot of time writing about the benefits of exercise for the brain as well as the body. Herewith info from the Tufts Health and Nutrition Letter on what I can only call food for thought.
Currently available medical treatments for age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease have had limited success. Adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle has been among the most consistent recommendations to maintain brain health over the long term. Some studies have linked an overall healthy dietary pattern to less chance of experiencing age-related decline in memory and other cognitive skills.
The specifics of “brain protective” diets vary, but tend to have certain elements in common. Dietary patterns associated with lower risk of age-related cognitive decline and dementia are higher in non-starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes and seafood while limited in red and/or processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, refined grains and added salt.
But there have been few long-term trials testing overall dietary patterns for protecting the aging brain. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are currently conducting a clinical trial of a diet specifically optimized for brain health and mild weight loss—the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet.
If successful, the result of the MIND trial will provide older adults with more specific nutritional guidance to maintain their cognitive health. “What they’re doing is logical and I predict will have positive benefits for a disease for which we have few interventions,” notes Dennis Steindler, PhD, senior scientist and director of Tufts’ HNRCA Neuroscience and Aging Laboratory. “Past trials were not home runs, but this study could be it if it bears the kind of findings I think it will.” Continue reading →
A team of scientists has successfully trained a new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to make accurate predictions regarding cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Mallar Chakravarty, a computational neuroscientist at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and his colleagues from the University of Toronto and the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, designed an algorithm that learns signatures from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), genetics, and clinical data. This specific algorithm can help predict whether an individual’s cognitive faculties are likely to deteriorate towards Alzheimer’s in the next five years.
“At the moment, there are limited ways to treat Alzheimer’s and the best evidence we have is for prevention. Our AI methodology could have significant implications as a ‘doctor’s assistant’ that would help stream people onto the right pathway for treatment. For example, one could even initiate lifestyle changes that may delay the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s or even prevent it altogether,” says Chakravarty, an Assistant Professor in McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry.Continue reading →
A new study in Cardiovascular Research, published by Oxford University Press, indicates that patients with high blood pressure are at a higher risk of developing dementia. This research also shows (for the first time) that an MRI can be used to detect very early signatures of neurological damage in people with high blood pressure, before any symptoms of dementia occur.
High blood pressure is a chronic condition that causes progressive organ damage. It is well known that the vast majority of cases of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia are not due to genetic predisposition but rather to chronic exposure to vascular risk factors.
The clinical approach to treatment of dementia patients usually starts only after symptoms are clearly evident. However, it has becoming increasingly clear that when signs of brain damage are manifest, it may be too late to reverse the neurodegenerative process. Physicians still lack procedures for assessing progression markers that could reveal pre-symptomatic alterations and identify patients at risk of developing dementia.
Researchers screened subjects admitted at the Regional Excellence Hypertension Center of the Italian Society of Hypertension in the Department of Angiocardioneurology and Translational Medicine of the I.R.C.C.S, Neuromed, in Italy. Researchers recruited people aged 40 to 65, compliant to give written informed consent and with the possibility to perform a dedicated 3 Tesla MRI scan. Continue reading →
A variety of meditation-based programs have been developed in recent years to reduce stress and medical symptoms and to promote wellness. One lingering question is to what extent these programs are similar or different. In a study published in the June issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers, in collaboration with members of the two leading mind-body stress reduction programs, reports the results of their study documenting the different effects these mind-body practices have in the brain.
There are two widely used meditation-based stress reduction courses. One is based on the relaxation response – first described by Herb Benson, MD, director emeritus of the MGH-based Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine – which focuses on eliciting a physiologic state of deep rest, the opposite of the “fight or flight” stress response. The other is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which emphasizes a particular, non-judgmental attitude termed “mindfulness” as key to stress reduction. Although both interventions are based on meditation, the scientific philosophies and meditative traditions upon which each is founded are different, and these differences are reflected in the instructions and exercises taught to patients.
“If the hypotheses proposed by the programs’ creators are in fact correct, they imply that these programs promote wellness through different mechanisms of action,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroscience Research Program, senior author of the current report and assistant professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Such a finding would suggest that these programs could potentially have different effects on disease.”
I am an old man by any standards and while I consider myself comfortable on an Apple computer, I am not a big texter, Facebooker, or social-media maven in general. I do indulge in Google Plus. Nonetheless, I can not deny that the younger folks I encounter do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at their cell phone screens. This piece from Samuel Merritt University fascinated me.
Technology is changing our brains as well as our lives. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re staring into a screen. Our inability to look away from our tablets, smartphones and social networking platforms is changing the way we process information and perceive the world, according to Adam Alter, author of the new book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.”
In one Gallup Panel survey, 52 percent of smartphone owners reported checking their mobile devices a few times an hour or more. Data confirms that young people are even more wired: More than seven in 10 young smartphone users check their device a few times an hour or more often, and 22 percent admit to looking at it every few minutes.
The digital age is transforming our behavior when we limit our communication to 140 characters and use emojis to express our emotions. When we’re bored, we simply reach for our gadgets. Continue reading →
The American Heart Association (AHA) has a superb rundown on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, literally from cradle to grave. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see these concepts broadcast by the mainstream health outlets like the AHA. The following is directly from them. At the end I have listed some of my posts which flesh out these steps. Remember, eat less; move more; live longer.
A healthy lifestyle benefits your brain as much as the rest of your body — and may lessen the risk of cognitive decline (a loss of the ability to think well) as you age, according to a new advisory from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
Both the heart and brain need adequate blood flow, but in many people, blood vessels slowly become narrowed or blocked over the course of their life, a disease process known as atherosclerosis, the cause of many heart attacks and strokes. Many risk factors for atherosclerosis can be modified by following a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity, avoiding tobacco products and other strategies.
“Research summarized in the advisory convincingly demonstrates that the same risk factors that cause atherosclerosis, are also major contributors to late-life cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. By following seven simple steps — Life’s Simple 7 — not only can we prevent heart attack and stroke, we may also be able to prevent cognitive impairment,” said vascular neurologist Philip Gorelick, M.D., M.P.H., the chair of the advisory’s writing group and executive medical director of Mercy Health Hauenstein Neurosciences in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Having lost three family members to Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, I was fascinated by this information from researchers in Berlin.
A study led by researchers at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM) and the Institute of Medical Physics and Biophysics at the Faculty of Medicine in Charité Hospital, Berlin, published in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrates that the cholesterol present in cell membranes can interfere with the function of an important brain membrane protein, through a previously unknown mode of interaction. Specifically, cholesterol is capable of regulating the activity of the adenosine receptor, by invading it and accessing the active site. This will allow new ways of interacting with these proteins to be devised that in the future could lead to drugs for treating diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The adenosine receptor belongs to the GPCR family (G Protein-Coupled Receptors), a large group of proteins located in cell membranes, which are key in the transmission of signals and communication between cells. GPCRs are therefore involved in the majority of important physiological processes, including the interpretation of sensory stimuli such as vision, smell, and taste, the regulation of the immune and inflammatory system, and behavior modulation. Continue reading →
I write often about the benefits the brain gets from exercise and how we should make regular exercise a priority as much for our mental health as physical. That is a good positive target.
It turns out that WebMD also has some excellent suggestions for keeping our brains clicking on all cylinders, but they approach from the negative side. Not doing harmful things is also an important consideration in getting to old age with a fully functional brain.
Here is their list of bad habits:
Missing out on sleep. WebMD notes, “… lack of sleep may be a cause of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. It’s best to have regular sleeping hours. If you have trouble with sleep, avoid alcohol, caffeine, and electronics in the evening, and start a soothing bedtime ritual.”
In the last week of September, older adults find plenty of interesting things to do and learn during Active Aging Week, The International Council on Active Aging’s (ICAA) annual health promotion event.
In senior centers and retirement communities, parks and health clubs, nature preserves and dance halls, Active Aging Week hosts provide many opportunities to choose an active life:
• Healthy lifestyle presentations for diabetes, arthritis, depression and other conditions
• Nutrition and lifestyles presentations
• Brain fitness and healthy mental outlooks
• Health and fitness assessments
• Concerts, singalongs, dancing
• Group exercise, strength training,Tai chi and yoga
• Games and challenges
• Strolls and walks
• Health fairs, referrals, government programs
• Free food, prizes, coupons, pedometers and t-shirts
As our regular readers appreciate we fully support this effort to engage seniors in healthy activities. Please see what events are available in your area.