What Lonely Humans Can Learn From Lonely Mice
A dynamo young researcher has discovered that a pill could help address the loneliness epidemic and the aggression that often comes with it
Loneliness was once seen as a minor social woe — a misfortune affecting nursing home patients and extreme introverts — but lately, researchers have begun to view it as something of a public health crisis. Loneliness seems to exacerbate dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure, even cancer. It’s as bad for one’s health as a pack-a-day smoking habit. Meanwhile, at least one in four Americans today report that they don’t feel close to people, and those numbers appear to be worsening.
Despite a growing body of research into the problem, we’re still fumbling for solutions. Treatments fall into four main categories: helping lonely people improve their social skills, increasing their opportunities for social contact, enhancing their social support, and using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to change the way they think about their own self-worth. The most comprehensive analysis of loneliness treatments to date concluded that while CBT showed some promise, none of the methods were all that effective.
But what if a pill could provide the answer? A rising-star neuroscientist named Moriel Zelikowsky has been studying the brains of lonely mice at Caltech and published a paper in the journal Cell earlier this year showing how a little-known drug might help them. Medium spoke to Zelikowsky about her research and what it could mean for the future of loneliness.
Medium: Talk about what led you to start looking into loneliness.
Moriel Zelikowsky: I have a PhD in behavioral neuroscience, and one thing in social neuroscience that’s always been really interesting to me, and that I thought was timely, was this question of social isolation and how it affects the brain. Today, we’re seeing a huge increase in feelings of loneliness despite the fact that we’re more connected than ever before. So I spent a lot of time studying the effects of social isolation on behavior in mice and found that a lot of things are altered when animals are isolated. Then I looked at the neurobiology underlying it all.