Does isolation affect our brain?

One of the most important consequences of the corona virus crisis has undoubtedly been the restriction of people’s mobility and their confinement. What effects does isolation have on our brains?

Although it is an essential measure to face the pandemic and it is saving thousands of lives, it is also obvious that it can produce negative effects on the population. Especially if it lengthens a lot over time and if we do not put in place measures to reduce its impact.

After all, we are a social species. Interaction with our fellow human beings is a fundamental part of our lives: our brain is designed to socialize and suffers when relationships are reduced.

Having few relationships reduces health

Social isolation, unfortunately, is not unique to the current pandemic. It is a very widespread phenomenon throughout the world, and as far as we know, it has serious consequences on people’s health.

Scientists have been observing for many years that individuals with fewer or fewer social relationships have more health problems and a higher risk of dying. In particular, there is abundant evidence that prolonged social isolation has a negative impact on the nervous system and our behavior.

To top it all off, it can be a trigger for different psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia, depression or anxiety. Neurobiologists and neurobiologists are aware of these negative effects thanks to both human studies and, in my case, laboratory animals. However, it must be recognized that we are still far from knowing in detail what are the neural disorders that cause isolation to trigger these changes in our behavior.

It is not the same in all phases of life

Isolation can affect us at all stages of our lives, but it certainly has a greater impact in the first stages of our existence. It is because our brain is particularly sensitive during childhood and adolescence, because it is still just forming. Specifically in some brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex – the most anterior part of our brain – contacts are still forming between neurons and the brain circuits that will govern critical aspects of our behavior are being polished.

So any adverse experience, and in particular isolation, can have a stronger impact at these ages. To such an extent, that it can interfere in the construction of our brain circuits and produce alterations that persist until adulthood.

These changes can be the basis of behavioral changes that in some cases could become pathological. To take a close example, in our laboratory we have seen how mice subjected to prolonged isolation during adolescence present, when they are adults, volume changes in some brain structures such as the amygdala, the main center of

Emotion regulation

Likewise, we have detected changes in the levels of some molecules involved in the transmission of signals between neurons that could affect the activity of the amygdala and other brain regions. These structural and neurochemical changes occur in parallel to behavioral disturbances. Namely: isolated animals show more locomotor activity and greater anxiety.

On the other hand, similar studies by other colleagues also point to an increase in aggressiveness and fear, two behaviors that largely depend on the function of the amygdala. The data obtained in humans also point in the same direction: it seems that children who have suffered significant social isolation during childhood tend to present problems in their education and psychological problems.

Transient isolation

Charles Darwin said that his father, who was a doctor, had had a patient with heart problems from which he finally died. The patient, who was very observant, reported a very irregular pulse. However, invariably, when the doctor came to visit, he became regular.

Doctors have long observed that contact and social relationships have therapeutic effects. Furthermore, different studies have shown that “resocialization” can reverse the effects of isolation. When the mice that have been isolated during their childhood and / or youth return to live together in a group, they begin to normalize their behavior and reverse some of the changes that had occurred in their brain.

Obviously, the transitory isolation that we are suffering from the pandemic should not represent serious difficulties for our minors if they are at home with their parents. But it would not hurt if we tried to stimulate social relations during this time in all possible ways. These days, affection and relationship are very necessary within our homes, but also, more than ever through any other means to avoid isolation and loneliness.

It is worth remembering that there are many complicated social circumstances, in addition to minors at risk of social exclusion whose situation may have been aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. Fortunately, technology puts fantastic tools at our fingertips so we can stay in touch, even if virtually.

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