Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain’s structure and function


Loneliness increases the risk of poor sleep, higher blood pressure, cognitive and immune decline, depression, and ultimately an earlier death. Why?  …

Functional imaging evidence also shows lonely people have a suppressed neural response to rewarding social stimuli, which reduces their excitement about possible social contact; they also have dampened activity in brain areas involved in predicting what others are thinking – possibly a defence mechanism based on the idea that it’s better not to know. All this adds up to what the authors characterise as a social “self-preservation mode.”

Meanwhile, animal models are helping us to understand the deeper, biological correlates associated with loneliness. For mice, being raised in isolation depletes key neurosteroids including one involved in aggression; it reduces brain myelination, which is vital to brain plasticity and may account for the social withdrawal and inflexibility seen in isolated animals; and it can influence gene expression linked to anxious behaviours.

What about changes to our neural tissue? Human research is suggestive: in one study, people who self-identified as lonelier were more likely to develop dementia. Here, initial cognitive decline could be causing loneliness, but animal work gives us some plausible mechanisms for loneliness’ impact: animals kept in isolation have suppressed growth of new neurons in areas relating to communication and memory, just as very social periods such as breeding season see a pronounced spike in growth.

Other basic brain processes are also upset by isolation. Isolated mice show reduced delta-wave activity during deep sleep; and their inflammatory responses also change, meaning that in one study, three in five isolated mice died following an induced stroke, whereas every one of their cage-sharing peers survived the same process…

15 thoughts on “Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain’s structure and function

  1. Interesting. The “Reward” chemical is dopamine, and dopamine levels are noticeably lower in a number of chronic conditions, including fibro and depression. Turmeric increases dopamine production and release, as does L-Dopa, got from Dopa Mucuna. I take both and notice a big difference if I run out of them. Ultimate dopamine failure leads to Parkinson’s, so dopamine deficiencies need to be identified earlier rather than later, in my opinion.

    Fortunately, I still get excited (a dopamine rush) at the prospect of meeting people socially, especially as it’s such a rare event these days. How ever much it crucifies me to get up, get dressed, get organised and get there (or have them come here, which is stressful because of my lack of housework and attached shame) and however much I pay for it after the event, I DO get happy about seeing people. I used to be SUCH a sociable thing. I hate the isolation and loneliness that chronic illness brings.

    L. x

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      • Nope, never an extrovert, too terrified of disapproval for that. But I get how pain and illness make us all more withdrawn, because it has done to not only me, but to other people I once knew as extroverts proper. I just loved people. I’ve always been fascinated by behaviour. I could sit in a pub on my own and just people watch. As in I used to, not now. Don’t drink, smoking is banned, and I’m too knackered. x

        Liked by 1 person

      • PS Any show of confidence I used to put on was just that. And that was when I was not grossly obese from steroids, and not saggy and baggy from my chemo-induced early menopause. Those things have destroyed what fragile confidence I had in my old appearance. I’ve never been an extrovert in the sense of holding a room’s attention on purpose, seeking the limelight and being loud. X

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        • I understand that. When I was a very insecure teenager, I wouldn’t leave the house without full slap, hair done, etc. Then when my exhaustion got too bad, I had no energy to do that, and one day I went out with no makeup on. To my amazement, the sky didn’t fall in on my head, no-one stared, and small children didn’t recoil in horror.

          After a reappearance of makeup etc when my thyroid was first treated, I have rarely worn it again since 2007. I mean, I can literally count the times on one hand. Even washing is too much of an effort, however gross that sounds! X

          PS I’m not smelly!

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        • Ask B! I discovered a fabulous natural stone/crystal deodorant years ago when I was at uni doing an equine sports science degree and was very sweaty but living in freezing halls accommodation…..bionsen. Comes in a pump bottle that you add water to. Completely destroys the bacteria that cause B.O. Definitely works. And I won’t use any standard deos with aluminium etc in, because of the breast cancer, nor anti perspirants because you sweat for a reason and I’m still full of chemo toxins and don’t want to trap them in there. Then there’s my antideo essential oil sprays that I make up in the empty bionsen bottles with water…..and my three trusty wash cloths, or flannels as we call them here. One for face, one for body, one for my bits, Lol. It’s amazing how creative you can be with a flannel whilst sitting in front of the sink! Baths and showers are too hard, I’m too wobbly, I get too tired, and the water hurts me. X

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    • Showers twice a day? See, I was right, you are a smelly girl. 🙂

      I’m not fond of water pressure either, but I don’t like taking baths. The hard water in Albuquerque really dries out my skin and can make it itchy, along with how dry it is here. But I don’t need to take a shower every day. And I rarely use deodorant (but I like the smell of Dove), because I do whatever I can not to sweat.

      Heat just makes my head pound — is it like that for you too?

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      • Can’t stand hot water at all anymore – used to love a good, hot soak. Am hot almost all the time since chemo, which is annoying when I want to use my heat pad on my poor back. My head pounds even after a warm bath, and in hot weather, especially humid. Fine if I’m by the sea, on a breezy beach, and can dunk in the sea or a pool, but sunbathing makes me feel awful, pounding head and all, unless I can cool my head off. X

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        • Well, they claim I am “most unusual” (med speak for “weird”) but I’ve met plenty of others who have been likewise wrecked by chemo. My onc swore he’d never seen anyone react so badly, and not bounce back after, yet one of my friends is also a patient of his with the same symptoms as me (turned out she also developed fibro from chemo, too, dx’d after a lot of pushing from me two years ago for her to see a rheumy) but had given up telling onc how crap she felt because his efforts to be “positive” involved what I called Relentless Cheerfulness – I’d say, “I feel like shit,” he’d beam and say, “But you look so much better! You’re doing really well!” My friend gave up trying to get him to hear her. I just lost it one day and said, “Will you stop being so relentlessly fucking cheerful and LISTEN to what I’m telling you! I FEEL LIKE SHIT SINCE CHEMO! I FEEL WORSE THAN THE CANCER MADE ME FEEL! Bloody well DO something about it and stop telling me I LOOK FINE! I’m NOT fucking fine! And I’m NOT your only patient who feels like this [mentioned friend’s name] but you shut them up with your relentlessly cheerful act so they give up trying to tell you! I bet there are THOUSANDS of us out there who get wrecked by chemo, and no-one wants to hear it!”

          Man, I was at the end of my tether. But still, it was that outburst that got him to refer me to rheumatology (I hadn’t even heard of fibro then). Poor onc. But it made him listen more to patients who were affected like I was. Never seen anything like it my arse – I’m just not that special. There are tons of us who don’t recover “normally” from chemo.

          I think, if you’re otherwise healthy and all your detoxifying and neutralising enzymes and clearance systems are working well, your body probably gets rid of at least most of it. But in my case, my Mystery Illness had gone on for thirty years plus, so I guess I was screwed from the start. I should have listened to the screaming protest coming from every fibre of my being on the way into that first chemo session. Or when my veins closed up like a cat’s arse at the second session,when they couldn’t get the canula into a vein (I think my body was trying to prevent more poison coming in) so they fitted me with a PICC line instead. Then veins broke.

          Oh well. Stable doors and bolting horses….no use whingeing about it now. I should have listened to my body at the time.

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