The efforts of neuroscientists to understand the feeling of loneliness and how it plays out in our brains could help us measure the impact of social isolation, particularly prevalent in this time of confinement.
Long before the world heard of Covid-19, Kay Tye, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies [en Californie], had decided to answer a question that takes on a new resonance in this period of physical distancing: does a person who feels lonely want social interactions in the same way a person who is hungry wants to eat ? And can we spot and measure this “urge” in the neural circuits of the brain?
“Loneliness is something universal, assure Kay Tye. It seems reasonable to argue that it should be a concept of neuroscience. It’s just that no one has ever found a way to test for it and assign it to specific cells. This is what we are trying to do. ”
In recent years, there has been a large body of scientific literature appearing which notes the existence of a link between loneliness, on the one hand, and depression, anxiety, alcoholism and drug use. somewhere else. A growing number of epidemiological studies even show that loneliness makes you more likely to fall ill: it seems to trigger the chronic release of hormones that inhibit the immune system.
The biochemical changes brought on by loneliness can accelerate the progression of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, or simply rob the more energetic among us of the will to continue. If we could measure and detect it, we could identify those at risk and pave the way for new interventions.
A fuzzy definition
The effects of Covid-19 on mental health are likely to manifest globally in the coming months. “Everyone will soon realize that social isolation has an impact on mental health, estime Kay Tye. I think this impact will be intense and immediate. ”
However, it is difficult to quantify and even define loneliness. So difficult, moreover, that neuroscientists have avoided the subject for a long time. Loneliness is inherently subjective, explains Kay Tye. “You can join a Zoom meeting with loved ones who are in another city and feel deeply connected – or even more lonely than before the meeting started.”
This vagueness perhaps explains the curious results that emerged when she searched for papers on the issue before publishing her first neuroscientific paper on loneliness, in 2016. She found studies on loneliness in the psychological literature, but the number of publications also containing the words “cells”, “neurons” or “brain” was exactly zero.
Although some of the greatest minds in philosophy, literature, and art have been examining the nature of loneliness for millennia, neuroscientists have long assumed that how it works in the brain human escaped laboratory experiments.
Kay Tye hopes to remedy this by creating an entirely new area of research: one that analyzes and understands how our sensory perceptions, past experiences, genetic predispositions, situations in our life combine with our environment to produce a concrete biological state. , measurable, called loneliness. And she wants to identify how this seemingly inexpressible experience manifests itself in the brain.
Directly stimulate neurons
If it succeeds, we may have new tools to identify patients whose loneliness risks accentuating the pathology. We may also have better ways of dealing with the crisis
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