Researchers discover neurological link to loneliness

October 25, 2012

Researchers from UCL have found that lonely people have less grey matter in a part of the brain associated with decoding eye gaze and other social cues.

Published in the journal of , the study also suggests that through training people might be able to improve their social perception and become less lonely.

"What we've found is the neurobiological basis for loneliness," said lead author Dr Ryota Kanai (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). "Before conducting the research we might have expected to find a link between lonely people and the part of the brain related to emotions and anxiety, but instead we found a link between loneliness and the amount of grey matter in the part of the brain involved in basic social perception." 

To see how differences in loneliness might be reflected in the structure of the associated with social processes, the team scanned the brains of 108 healthy adults and gave them a number of different tests. Loneliness was self-reported and measured using a UCLA loneliness scale questionnaire. 

When looking at full brain scans they saw that lonely individuals have less greymatter in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)—an area implicated in basic social perception, confirming that loneliness was associated with difficulty in processing .

"The pSTS plays a really important role in social perception, as it's the initial step of understanding other people," said Dr Kanai. "Therefore the fact that lonely people have less grey matter in their pSTS is likely to be the reason why they have poorer ."

In order to gauge social perception, participants were presented with three different faces on a screen and asked to judge which face had misaligned eyes and whether they were looking either right or left. Lonely people found it much harder to identify which way the eyes were looking, confirming the link between loneliness, the size of the pSTS and the perception of

"From the study we can't tell if loneliness is something hardwired or environmental," said co-author Dr Bahador Bahrami (UCL Institute of ). "But one possibility is that people who are poor at reading social cues may experience difficulty in developing social relationships, leading to social isolation and loneliness." 

One way to counter this loneliness could be through social perception training with a smartphone app.

"The idea of training is one way to address this issue, as by maybe using a smartphone app to improve people's basic such as eye gaze, hopefully we can help them to lead less lonely lives," said Dr Kanai.

Explore further: How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

Related Stories

Effects of loneliness mimic aging process

May 1, 2012

The social pain of loneliness produces changes in the body that mimic the aging process and increase the risk of heart disease, reports a recent Cornell study published in Psychology and Aging (27:1). Changes in cardiovascular ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Oct 27, 2012
That's good and everything. But it still doesn't solve my loneliness.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2012
None of this exists between children at birth (or shortly before and after) and their mothers.
No (definable) cues, lateralization, or loneliness.

Which means this article never appeared.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.