The coronavirus epidemic and the demands of social distancing that it has provoked have resulted in a number of people spending long periods of time in isolation.
Canadian scientists from McGill University have discovered several features of the brains of lonely people, according to the university’s press service.
The scientists examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, genetics and psychological self-esteem of about 40,000 middle-aged and older adults who agreed to include their information in the UK Biobank, an open-access database available to medical scientists around the world.
They then compared the MRI data of participants who reported often feeling lonely with those who made no such claims.
The differences were found in what’s called the passive-mode brain network, a set of brain regions involved in inner thoughts such as memories, planning for the future, imagining and thinking about others.
The researchers found that lonely people had brain regions that were more tightly wired together, and the amount of gray matter in those areas was greater.
Loneliness also correlated with differences in the brain vault (fornix), a bundle of nerve fibers that transmit signals from the hippocampus to the brain’s passive mode network. In solitary people, the structure of this fiber pathway was more prominent.
People use the passive-mode brain network when recalling the past, thinking about the future, or thinking about the hypothetical present.
The fact that network structure and function are positively related to loneliness may be related to the fact that lonely people are more likely to use imagination, memories of the past or hopes for the future to overcome their social isolation, the researchers emphasize.
The scientists note that they are just beginning to understand the effects of loneliness on the brain.
Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us better appreciate the relevance of reducing loneliness in today’s society,” the researchers add.