Several studies over the years have linked social isolation – especially during childhood – with negative health outcomes throughout life, including mental health problems and increased risk of certain diseases. How loneliness causes these problems remains a mystery, however, at least until now. A new study identified a brain change apparently 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 at the Icahn School of Medicine on Mount Sinai. In their investigation of social isolation and its impact on the brain, the scientists identified “specific subpopulations of brain cells” in a part of the brain that plays a large 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 to uncover how social isolation affects people while opening the door to potential new treatments for psychiatric disorders resulting from loneliness.
The researchers were able to increase social interaction in adult mice using drugs and pulses of light, reversing the social deficits caused by the isolation of the mice when they were young. However, further research is needed to determine whether the same findings – including potential treatment – translate into humans as well as 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.