Loneliness and Lack of Social Connection Can Alter Your Brain

Loneliness has been in abundance this year, with isolation and stay-at-home orders a necessity for months at a time. Through MRI scans, new research has found the interesting way loneliness appears to change the brain. According to HuffPost, loneliness seems to alter a part of the brain called the default network.

This area is involved in thinking and inner thoughts, superficially those connected with imagination, thinking about others and future planning. In a new study, researchers found that the default networks in the brains of lonely people were strongly wired together and the grey matter volume was greater. Researchers think this could be caused because socially isolated people are more likely to use their imagination and memories in order to overcome their loneliness.

Nathan Spreng, the study’s lead author, from the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital of McGill University, says that a larger volume of grey matter volume in the brain generally means greater integrity of the neural circuit.

“Lonely people tend to imagine the social world to a greater degree, as well as imagine and reminisce about social experiences more,” Spreng said. “So, we think that in the absence of social stimulation in the world, the brain is compensating by upregulating these functions of the default network.”

Spreng and his colleague Danilo Bzdok examined the MRI scans, genetics and psychological self-assessments of 40,000 middle-aged and older adults from the United Kingdom BioBank — a database that is available for scientists to access around the world.

The researchers then compared the MRI data of participants who reported loneliness against those who didn’t. They found that those who experienced social isolation had noticeable differences in the fornix — a bundle of nerve fibres that carry signals from the hippocampus to the default network — which was better preserved.

These differences suggest that the default network and fornix are integral in social interaction and highlight the importance of connection. “In the absence of this experience of social connection, the brain appears to compensate,” Spreng said.

Understanding how loneliness affects the brain could also help further research in the field of neurological disease prevention said the researchers. Spreng added: “We do not have direct causal evidence of these changes, but this study does provide suggestive evidence to this effect”.

Loneliness is something most people will experience at some point or another but at certain times, it can feel overwhelming. Reach out to those around you for support, or get in touch with a support service to chat through your feelings.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.

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