analysis of nearly forty thousand brain scans shows that adults who often feel lonely have structural and functional changes in parts of their brains sometimes associated with social interactions and mind-wandering  

original article: Spreng et al., 2020 (Nature Communications), reported in: The Globe and Mail by Eric Andrew-Gee on 9th February 2021 image source

this story was in episode 3 #loneliness #connectivity #default #rest

the error bar says

Canada's Globe and Mail reports on a brain imaging study that looks at the structure and activity of thousands of brains stored in the UK's biobank database.

within that database, nearly 40,000 people had several different kinds of brain scans of both the structure and the activity of the brain at rest. each of these people had also answered a simple question: do you often feel lonely?

since the average age of participants was 55, this question taps into trait loneliness - people who have been feeling lonely for some time.

these 40,000 brains were analysed using sophisticated computational and statistical methods.

the researchers found that a set of brain regions known as 'the default network' was strongly associated with people's response to that one question - do you often feel lonely?

indeed, the amount of grey matter in this brain region was strongly associated with loneliness, as were the relationships between activity in this region and other regions. finally, some white matter pathways emerging from the hippocampus - which is an important part of the brain associated with memory - were also associated with loneliness

does loneliness change your brain?


the authors of this study used sophisticated methods on the very large database of brain scans that they analysed.

there was just a single question asked of the participants: do you often feel lonely, which they answered yes or no. and all of the complex data analysis was focussed on the relationship between that single answer and the brain.

like most papers reviewed here, it is outside my specific expertise. however, this paper strikes me as a high quality bit of science. there are clear signs of goodness here:

the research paper uses the word "uncertainty" no fewer than six times - we love uncertainty at the error bar; it uses robust statistical methods that take account of the inherent biases in and limitations of the dataset.

phrases like bootstrapping, Bonferroni’s correction, and Monte Carlo simulation in this paper really do make our hearts sing.

this is quality science reporting both from the Globe and Mail, and from the scientists. we celebrate it.


a sophisticated, thorough and cautious analysis of a massive, high-quality dataset answers a very simple question: does feeling lonely change the brain? yes, it seems it does


The Globe and Mail: fact - scientific story reported well