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Loneliness strengthens the parts of our brains associated with imagination

Loneliness strengthens the parts of our brains associated with reminiscing, future planning and imagination to help us overcome social isolation, study finds

  • Researchers examined MRI scans, genetics and psychological data on UK adults
  • They compared the scans of ‘often lonely people’ to those who aren’t lonely 
  • The team discovered notable differences in the brains of often lonely people
  • This focused on regions of the brain linked to inner thoughts and imagination 

Being lonely can help strengthen parts of the brain linked to reminiscing, future planning and imagination, researchers discover, adding it can help with isolation. 

A team of researchers from McGill University examined MRI scan data, genetics and psychological self-assessments of 40,000 older adults from the UK. 

Christmas is going to be a lonely time for many this year with social distancing due to Covid-19 continuing and many areas being moved into tighter restrictions. 

Canadian researchers wanted to understand how isolation affects health by comparing MRI data of people who reported feeling lonely with those who did not.

They found several differences in the brains of lonely people centred around an area linked to inner thoughts such as reminiscing, future planning and imagination.

Lonely people are more likely to use imagination, memories of the past or hopes for the future to overcome their social isolation, the researchers discovered.

A team of researchers from McGill University examined MRI scan data, genetics and psychological self-assessments of 40,000 older adults from the UK

The team analysed data on 40,000 middle aged and older Britons from the UK Biobank – an ongoing health survey tracking around half a million people. 

Changes discovered in the lonely mind focused on a region of the brain known as the ‘default network’ – which was more strongly wired together in lonely people.  

Loneliness also correlated with differences in the fornix: a bundle of nerve fibres that carries signals from the hippocampus to the default network. 

In lonely people, the structure of this fibre tract was better preserved.

We use the default network when remembering the past, envisioning the future or thinking about a hypothetical present, according to the Canadian team. 

Senior author Professor Danilo Bzdok said: ‘It is consistent with the possibility lonely individuals may more often engage in imagined social interaction or re-experience social events from the past to fill the void.’ 

‘Currently, in times of confinement and social distancing, the experience of loneliness is only sky-rocketing,’ said lead author Nathan Spreng.  

The fact the structure and function of this network is positively associated with loneliness may be because lonely people are more likely to use imagination, memories of the past or hopes for the future to overcome their social isolation.

‘In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences,’ Spreng added.

‘We know these cognitive abilities are mediated by the default network brain regions,’ he said.

‘So this heightened focus on self-reflection, and possibly imagined social experiences, would naturally engage the memory-based functions of the default network.’

Canadian researchers wanted to understand how isolation affects health by comparing MRI data of people who reported feeling lonely with those who did not

Canadian researchers wanted to understand how isolation affects health by comparing MRI data of people who reported feeling lonely with those who did not 

Loneliness is increasingly being recognised as a major health problem, and previous studies have shown older people who experience loneliness have a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia.  

Spreng said: ‘Loneliness adversely impacts health in a number of ways – both physically and mentally – in addition to increasing the chances of developing dementia, especially Alzheimer’s.’ 

Understanding how loneliness manifests itself in the brain could be key to preventing neurological disease and developing better treatments.

‘It is currently unknown why it is older adults who report feelings of social isolation are disproportionately more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease,’ said Spreng.

Dementia affects more than 850,000 people in the UK – a figure set to rise to 2 million by 2050 because of the ageing population. 

‘We are just beginning to understand the impact of loneliness on the brain. Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us to better appreciate the urgency of reducing loneliness in today’s society,’ says Bzdok.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT IT IS POSSIBLE TO DIE OF LONELINESS

Research suggests it is possible to ‘die of loneliness’.

A major study published March 2018 suggested social isolation can increase the chance of a stroke by 39 per cent and premature death by 50 per cent.

Loneliness may raise the risk of a heart attack by more than 40 per cent, researchers found.

The analysis was based on the health records of 480,000 Britons – making it the largest study of its kind.

Those who already had cardiovascular problems were far more likely to die early if they were isolated, suggesting the importance of family and friends in aiding recovery.

The research team, which included British academics, said lonely people had a higher rates of chronic diseases and smoking and showed more symptoms of depression.



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