Study: Lonely People Have ‘Disconnected’ Patterns of Brain Activity

HANOVER, N.H. — In the midst of a global pandemic and widespread social distancing, many of us may be feeling some degree of loneliness. Not sure where you fall on that scale? A new study suggests that scientists can actually tell whether you are lonely or not by looking at your brain activity.

In the study, researchers at Dartmouth University used fMRI scans to record brain activity while people thought about themselves and others. Study participants consisted of 50 adults ages 18 to 47. Before undergoing the brain scans, participants were asked to list five close friends and five acquaintances. Once in the fMRI scanner, they rated those individuals in terms of various traits, such as friendliness. They were also asked to rate themselves, along with five celebrities. Finally, researchers had participants rate their own degree of social connection or disconnection (i.e., loneliness).

The authors say that the brain seems to have separate clusters of activity whether one thinks about themselves, their social networks (close relationships/acquaintances), and distant relationships (celebrities). These activity patterns differ depending on how lonely they are.

Different ‘constellation of neural activity’ in lonely people

Although the researchers looked at activity across the entire brain, they focused on one region in particular: the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This region has been previously associated with self-representation. In less lonely people, the pattern of MPFC activity when people think about themselves is similar to the pattern of activity when they think about others.

In lonely people, however, the activity pattern when thinking about the self and others is different.

“It’s almost as if you have a specific constellation of neural activity that is activated when you think about yourself,” explains lead author Meghan Meyer in a statement. “And when you think about your friends, much of the same constellation is recruited. If you are lonely though, you activate a fairly different constellation when you think about others than when you think about yourself. It’s as though your brain’s representation of yourself is more disconnected from other people, which is consistent with how lonely people say they feel.”

The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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