Researchers discover a specific brain circuit damaged by social isolation during childhood. Study in mice shows long-lasting effects and points the way to potential treatments.
Scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, have now pinpointed specific brain cell sub-populations in a major region of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). These are responsible for regulating social behavior, and are necessary for normal sociability during adulthood. Using mice for their study, the researchers determined that these specific brain cells can make us deeply susceptible to juvenile social isolation.
Loneliness & Mental Health
Most people are mindful of the fact that loneliness is a clear and present threat to our mental health and well-being. Yet regardless of 24/7 social media, and being able to have screen face-time with anyone on the planet at no charge, youngsters are nonetheless, experiencing a growing sense of isolation. COVID-19 has been going on for so long, and the fallout has brought a great deal of negative consequences and suffering. Children have had their lives turned around, and many have lost their routines and purpose. School closures and social distancing magnify the need for determining the mental health effects of loneliness and social isolation.
So What Does the Research Say?
Although studies have indicated that social isolation, especially during childhood is detrimental to adult brain function and behavior across mammalian species, the underlying neural circuit mechanisms have remained poorly understood. Hopefully, however, this is about to change, as the aforementioned study, which has just been published in the medical journal, Nature Neuroscience, has shed light on a previously unrecognized role of these cells which project to the brain area that relay signals to various components of the brain’s reward circuitry.
If the finding is replicated in humans, it could lead to treatments for psychiatric disorders connected to isolation. Clearly, such treatments could help countless people, and the sooner they are established, the better.
The research paper’s senior author, Hirofumi Morishita, MD, PhD, who is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Ophthalmology, at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine and a faculty member of the Mindich Child Health and Development Institute, as well as the Friedman Brain Institute, stated that, “in addition to identifying this specific circuit in the prefrontal cortex that is particularly vulnerable to social isolation during childhood, we also demonstrated that the vulnerable circuit we identified is a promising target for treatments of social behavior deficits.”
Indeed, by stimulating the particular prefrontal circuit which projects onto the thalamic area during adulthood, the researchers “were able to rescue the sociability deficits caused by juvenile social isolation”.
As social behavior deficits are a common element in many psychiatric and neuro-developmental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism, pinpointing these select prefrontal neurons are bound to help scientists establish therapeutic targets for ameliorating social behavior deficits across a broad spectrum of psychiatric disorders. The circuits identified in this study could potentially be modulated using techniques like trans-cranial magnetic stimulation and/or trans-cranial direct current stimulation; high tech treatments which do not involve pharmaceuticals.