A number of studies over the years have linked social isolation — particularly during childhood — with negative health outcomes over one’s life, including mental health problems and increased risk for certain diseases. How loneliness causes these issues has remained a mystery, however, at least until now. A new study has identified a brain change seemingly triggered by social isolation in youth, as well as a potential way to reverse it.
The study was recently published in Nature Neuroscience, detailing the findings of researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In their investigation of social isolation and its impact on the brain, the scientists identified ‘specific sub-populations of brain cells’ in a part of the brain that has a big role in normal social behavior in adults.
The cells are located in the prefrontal cortex and are, at least in young mice, quite vulnerable to social isolation, according to the study. This function is described as ‘previously unrecognized,’ helping unravel how social isolation impacts people while opening the door for potential new treatments for psychiatric disorders resulting from loneliness.
The researchers were able to increase social interaction in adult mice using drugs and light pulses, reversing the social deficits caused by isolating the mice when they were young. However, additional research is necessary to determine whether the same findings — including potential treatment — translate to humans as well as they do rodents.
The study’s senior author Hirofumi Morishita, MD, Ph.D., said:
In addition to identifying this specific circuit in the prefrontal cortex that is particularly vulnerable to social isolation during childhood, we also demonstrated that the vulnerable circuit we identified is a promising target for treatments of social behavior deficits. Through stimulation of the specific prefrontal circuit projecting to the thalamic area in adulthood, we were able to rescue the sociability deficits caused by juvenile social isolation.