Social Isolation Actually Changes The Structure of Our Brains, Neuroimaging Reveals


Why do being in huge numbers at festivals, jubilees, and other public events make us feel good? It's because the human brain developed expressly to enable social interactions, according to the social brain theory. According to research, belonging to a group can boost one's happiness and contentment with life.

Unfortunately, many people are socially isolated or lonely. And, if the human brain did indeed evolve for social interaction, we can anticipate this to have a substantial impact.

Social isolation is connected to changes in brain structure and cognition - the mental process of obtaining information – and even an increased risk of dementia in older persons, according to a new study published in Neurology.

The social brain theory already has a lot of data to back it up. In one research, over 7,000 adults had their brain areas related with social interaction mapped.

It was discovered that the default mode network (which is active when we are not focusing on the outside world), the salience network (which helps us select what we pay attention to), the subcortical network (which is involved in memory, emotion, and motivation), and the central executive network are all strongly linked to networks that support cognition (which enables us to regulate our emotions).

We wanted to learn more about how social isolation impacts grey matter, which is made up of neurons in the brain's outer layer. As a result, we looked at data from over 500,000 persons in the UK Biobank, with an average age of 57.

If a person lived alone, had less than monthly social contact, and participated in social activities less than weekly, they were classed as socially isolated.

Neuroimaging (MRI) data from roughly 32,000 persons was also included in our study. This revealed that persons who were socially isolated had worse cognition, including slower memory and reaction times, as well as reduced grey matter volume in several areas of the brain.

The temporal lobe (which processes sounds and aids memory encoding), the frontal lobe (which is involved in attention, planning, and complex cognitive tasks), and the hippocampus (a key area involved in learning and memory that is typically disrupted early in Alzheimer's disease) were among the areas studied.

We also discovered a relationship between reduced grey matter volumes and some genetic pathways linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Participants were followed up with 12 years afterwards. This study discovered that those who were socially isolated but not lonely had a 26% higher risk of dementia.

Processes in the background

In future studies, the specific processes behind social isolation's dramatic consequences on our brains must be investigated in more depth. However, it is obvious that if you are alone, you may be experiencing chronic stress. This, in turn, has a significant influence on both your mental and physical health.

Another aspect might be that we lose part of the function of specific brain regions if we don't use them. The capacity of the hippocampus expanded as the cab drivers learned more routes and addresses, according to a research. It's likely that if we don't engage in social interaction on a regular basis, our language skills and other cognitive functions like attention and memory may deteriorate.

Solving the problem of loneliness

We know that keeping your brain engaged throughout your life might help you develop a robust set of thinking abilities known as "cognitive reserve." Learning new things, such as a new language or a musical instrument, is a good method to achieve this.

It has been proven that having a high level of cognitive reserve can help to slow down the progression and severity of aging. It can, for example, guard against a variety of diseases and mental health issues, such as dementia, schizophrenia, and depression, particularly after traumatic brain damage.

A balanced diet and exercise are two lifestyle factors that can help you enhance your cognition and wellness. There are a few pharmaceutical therapies for Alzheimer's disease, but their efficacy must be enhanced, and side effects must be decreased.

There is optimism that improved therapies for dementia and aging will become available in the future. Exogenous ketones, an alternate energy source to glucose that may be consumed through dietary supplements, are one line of investigation in this area.

However, as our research demonstrates, addressing social isolation can be beneficial, especially in later life. Health officials should do a better job of monitoring who is isolated and arranging social activities for them.

This might have an impact on our capacity to do a variety of difficult cognitive activities, as memory and attention are essential for sophisticated cognitive thinking.

When individuals are unable to interact in person, technology may be used to fill the gap. This may, however, be more relevant to younger generations who are more comfortable with utilizing technology to communicate. It may, however, be useful in reducing social isolation in older persons with training.

The importance of social connection cannot be overstated. According to one study, the size of our social group is related to the volume of the orbitofrontal cortex (involved in social cognition and emotion).

But how many buddies do we actually require? Researchers frequently use the term "Dunbar's number" to define the size of social groupings, concluding that humans are unable to sustain more than 150 relationships and can usually only handle five close ones.

However, other studies claim that there isn't enough scientific data to support Dunbar's number, and that further study into the ideal size of social groupings is needed.

It is difficult to deny that humans are sociable animals that like interacting with others, regardless of their age. It is, nonetheless, vital for the health of our intellect, as we are rapidly discovering. The Discussion