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How Social Isolation and Loneliness Impact Brain Function

Imaging studies reveal neural correlates of social isolation and loneliness.

Key points

  • Acute social isolation evokes a "craving" response to social cues.
  • Social isolation enacts a unique "neural signature" in the brain.
  • People who report loneliness or social isolation experience more activity in the default mode network, perhaps reflecting greater self-focus.
  • A range of online as well as solo activities can combat loneliness and increase social engagement.
MT-R/ Shutterstock
A mother and daughter socially isolated due to quarantine from Coronavirus Covid-19
Source: MT-R/ Shutterstock

In March of 2020, over 316 million Americans (96 percent) were quarantined to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Eleven months into the pandemic, we are now dealing with a second “silent” epidemic brought about by social isolation.

While quarantine and social distancing have been necessary to prevent the virus from spreading, the adverse health effects can bring up feelings of loneliness, which can profoundly impact our mental health and well-being. According to the CDC, social isolation not only increases the risk of psychiatric disorders but can increase vulnerability to dementia by up to 50 percent.1 Furthermore, loneliness due to social isolation can affect our physical health resulting in decreased immune function, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, and metabolic disorders, and is a risk factor for mortality in older populations.

As we begin to gain a deeper understanding of how prolonged social isolation and loneliness impact our psychological and neurological health, two new neuroimaging studies published in Nature Neuroscience and Nature Communications add new insights into their neurobiological correlates.

How Forced Social Isolation Affects Brain Activity

This question was addressed prior to the pandemic by lead author Dr. Livia Tomova in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and her colleagues, who studied the effect of social isolation on the brain in a group of 40 healthy, socially connected adults (ages 18-40).2 The goal was to see if they could create an experimentally induced experience of social isolation to determine which brain regions are involved in driving the need for social interaction. The participants were asked to spend 10 hours socially isolated in a room with no media or individuals to interact with. The same participants also underwent 10 hours of food fasting. Each participant had functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at baseline, after the task (10 hr. social isolation or 10 hr. fasting), and after a cue (social cue, food cue, neutral cue).

They found that an acute period of social isolation followed by a cue to trigger social connectedness (i.e., an image of people engaged in their favorite social activity) resulted in increased activity of the dopaminergic midbrain neurons, which are involved in cravings and reward. This was the same region that was activated for food cravings. This region was not activated when a neutral cue was involved.

The novel finding from this study is that depriving a social need evokes a neural signature of social craving in a similar region (substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area) that responds to food cues when hungry. Thus, people who are forced to be socially isolated crave social interactions the way a hungry person craves food.

The Default Mode Network is Associated with Perceived Social Isolation

Research conducted by Dr. Nathan Spreng in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University, and colleagues, studied perceived social isolation, or loneliness, using MRI to investigate differences in brain volume and intrinsic functional connectivity in 40,000 participants from the UK Biobank imaging-genetics cohort.3 They discovered increased intra-network connectivity and brain volume in the default mode network, a set of brain regions involved in future planning, reminiscing, imagination, and creative thought, in those who reported feeling lonely. This finding suggests that those who are feeling lonely may become more inwardly focused with a heightened sense of self-reflection and mentalizing to fill the social void and overcome the feeling of isolation.

Taken together, these two studies illustrate that acute social isolation evokes a "craving" response to social cues and that loneliness has a unique neural signature.

8 Strategies for Coping with Loneliness and Strengthening Social Engagement

Social connection is a core psychological need essential to our health and well-being. The requisite social distancing from the pandemic has left many of us feeling lonely and isolated and looking for ways to adapt and become more resilient during this time. In closing, here are eight ways to ease the feeling of loneliness and enhance social engagement with our loved ones and community.

  1. Start each day with a 5-minute gratitude practice. Take the time to cultivate a gratitude practice, which is an appreciation of something meaningful to you. Not only will it fortify your emotional health and well-being, but it can also build resilience and coping skills by promoting positive thinking. Research shows it helps to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress and improves social bonds.4
  2. Livestream fitness classes. Exercise has tremendous benefits on physical and psychological health by reducing stress and uplifting mood. Participating in online classes connects you to a community that can help ease symptoms associated with depression. Whether it's cardio, pilates, yoga, boxing, dance, weightlifting, or barre, give online fitness classes a try. Physical activity interventions have been shown to influence social health and reduce feelings of loneliness.5
  3. Mindfulness-based meditation practice. Mindfulness based-smart phone interventions have been demonstrated to reduce loneliness and increase social contact and engagement.6 You can also work with an online meditation coach or try a guided meditation CD specific to addressing loneliness.
  4. Read or listen to audiobooks. Books enrich our sense of the world, spark imagination, and lead to new ideas and creative inspirations. Reading helps to enhance empathy and the ability to understand others. Online book clubs can help foster a sense of community and bonding with those of like interests.
  5. Spend time in nature or bring it indoors to you. Cognitive neuroscience research demonstrates that the environment we spend time in can increase or reduce our stress, impacting our overall health and well-being. Nature has been shown to buffer the effect of low social connectedness.7 The addition of a simple plant or flowers in a room can bring on a faster recovery from stress.
  6. Connect through Zoom dates. Schedule Zoom calls with friends, family, or loved ones. You can even try Zoom cooking, art, or music classes to connect with a community of like-minded people.
  7. Computer-based language training. Learning a new language can connect you with other cultures. This helps to promote thinking skills, mental agility, and building cognitive reserve (i.e., the resilience to neuropathology in the brain). It also enhances self-esteem and improves social behavior.8
  8. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Don’t be alone with your thoughts. CBT is an effective way to address mood and anxiety disorders, and research shows that videoconferencing is as effective as in-person sessions.9 Start weekly online sessions with a therapist who can work with you to give you the skills to reduce the obstacles and maladaptive thinking patterns that may be hindering social engagement.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Dubo/Shutterstock


1. Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. 2020.

2. Tomova L, Wang KL, Thompson T, et al. Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hunger. Nat Neurosci 2020;23:1597-605.

3. Spreng RN, Dimas E, Mwilambwe-Tshilobo L, et al. The default network of the human brain is associated with perceived social isolation. Nat Commun 2020;11:6393.

4. Caputo A. The Relationship Between Gratitude and Loneliness: The Potential Benefits of Gratitude for Promoting Social Bonds. Eur J Psychol 2015;11:323-34.

5. Brady S, D'Ambrosio LA, Felts A, Rula EY, Kell KP, Coughlin JF. Reducing Isolation and Loneliness Through Membership in a Fitness Program for Older Adults: Implications for Health. J Appl Gerontol 2020;39:301-10.

6. Lindsay EK, Young S, Brown KW, Smyth JM, Creswell JD. Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2019;116:3488-93.

7. Cartwright BDS, White MP, Clitherow TJ. Nearby Nature 'Buffers' the Effect of Low Social Connectedness on Adult Subjective Wellbeing over the Last 7 Days. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2018;15.

8. Klimova B. Learning a Foreign Language: A Review on Recent Findings About Its Effect on the Enhancement of Cognitive Functions Among Healthy Older Individuals. Front Hum Neurosci 2018;12:305.

9. Stubbings DR, Rees CS, Roberts LD, Kane RT. Comparing in-person to videoconference-based cognitive behavioral therapy for mood and anxiety disorders: randomized controlled trial. J Med Internet Res 2013;15:e258.

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