Long before the world had ever heard of covid-19, Kay Tye set out to answer a question that has taken on new resonance in the age of social distancing: When people feel lonely, do they crave social interactions in the same way a hungry person craves food? And could she and her colleagues detect and measure this “hunger” in the neural circuits of the brain?

“Loneliness is universal thing. If I were to ask people on the street, ‘Do you know what it means to be lonely?’ probably 99 or 100% of people would say yes,” explains Tye, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences. “It seems reasonable to argue that it should be a concept in neuroscience. It’s just that nobody ever found a way to test it and localize it to specific cells. That’s what we are trying to do.”

In recent years, a vast scientific literature has emerged linking loneliness to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse. There is even a growing body of epidemiological work showing that loneliness makes you more likely to fall ill: it seems to prompt the chronic release of hormones that suppress healthy immune function. Biochemical changes from loneliness can accelerate the spread of cancer, hasten heart disease and Alzheimer’s, or simply drain the most vital among us of the will to go on. The ability to measure and detect it could help identify those at risk and pave the way for new kinds of interventions.

In the months ahead, many are warning, we’re likely to see the mental-health impacts of covid-19 play out on a global scale. Psychiatrists are already worried about rising rates of suicide and drug overdoses in the US, and social isolation, along with anxiety and chronic stress, is one likely cause. “The recognition of the impact of social isolation on the rest of mental health is going to hit everyone really soon,” Tye says. “I think the impact on mental health will be pretty intense and pretty immediate.”

Yet quantifying, or even defining, loneliness is a difficult challenge. So difficult, in fact, that neuroscientists have long avoided the topic.

Loneliness, Tye says, is inherently subjective. It’s possible to spend the day completely isolated, in quiet contemplation, and feel invigorated. Or to stew in alienated misery surrounded by a crowd, in the heart of a big city, or accompanied by close friends and family. Or, to take a more contemporary example, to participate in a Zoom call with loved ones in another city and feel deeply connected—or even more lonely than when the call began.

This fuzziness might explain the curious results that came back when Tye, before publishing her first scientific paper on the neuroscience of loneliness in 2016, ran a search for other papers on the topic. Though she found studies on loneliness in the psychological literature, the number of papers that also contained the words “cells,” “neurons,” or “brain” was precisely zero.

Neuroscientists have long

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By: Amy Nordrum
Title: How does loneliness affect our brains?
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2020/09/04/1008008/neuroscience-loneliness-pandemic-covid-neurons-brain/
Published Date: Fri, 04 Sep 2020 09:00:00 +0000




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