School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Loneliness affects long-term brain function, according to new study

Being alone for just a day affects areas in the brain involved in thinking and perception, according to a new study from Queen Mary University of London.

29 July 2019

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Using the zebra finch, a songbird, the researchers looked at the effects of short-term social isolation on measures related to long-term brain function and health.

The results show that the experience of being alone has immediate consequences on brain gene activity. The researchers found that some of the changes are specifically linked to social factors – they only occurred when a bird was alone and did not occur when two birds were placed together in the isolation chamber.  As the response occurs in brain areas involved in higher-order cognition and perception, these changes in gene activity may influence the ongoing processing of experience.

In a human context the findings are significant, where loneliness (i.e. perceived social isolation) is a risk factor for psychological and neurodegenerative disorders.  The findings support a deeper understanding of the link between social factors and brain health. The identification of specific genes has implications for future research on loneliness which could be applied to both humans and animals.

Brain sensitivity to social environments

Lead author of the study Professor David Clayton from Queen Mary University of London said: “The results demonstrate how our brains are sensitive, at a very deep biological level, to immediate social environments. Social isolation can quickly put in motion biological processes that could have lasting effects on brain growth and health. Clearly this is important for the human context, where loneliness is a risk factor for psychological and neurodegenerative disorders.”

Prior studies in humans have measured effects of social isolation in circulating white blood cells, but not in the brain, and studies in mammalian models have typically focused on effects of much longer isolation periods (weeks or more). The results also bear on interpretation of animal experiments where short-term isolation is used to establish the baseline reference condition.

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