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Neural signals of social craving following acute social isolation in the human brain

By Monika Trebo | June 20, 2020

Abstract

When people are forced to be isolated from one another, do they crave social interactions in the same way a hungry person craves food?

Positive social interactions in and of themselves may be basic human needs, analogous to other basic needs like food consumption or sleep. If so, the absence of positive social interaction may create a want, or "craving", that motivates behavior to repair what is lacking. In the mouse model, even a brief acute period of social isolation causes an aversive, ‘loneliness-like’ brain state causing the mice to seek social interaction which is mediated specifically by dopaminergic midbrain neurons (Matthews et al. 2016), similar to other kinds of craving. However, the homology to human loneliness has been disputed, and it is not possible to assess whether a mouse subjectively feels lonely. Would acute isolation evoke a similar response in humans?

To address this question, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure neural responses in participants (n=40) evoked by food and social cues after ten hours of mandated fasting or total social isolation. After isolation, people felt lonely and craved social interaction. Midbrain regions showed increased activation to food cues after fasting and to social cues after isolation; these responses were correlated with self-reported craving. Neural patterns in response to food cues when participants were hungry generalized to social cues after isolation. Our results support the intuitive idea that acute isolation causes social craving, similar to hunger.

Bio

Livia Tomova is interested in how stress, loneliness and social isolation affect the brain and mind. Her PhD research at University of Vienna focused on the effects of acute stress on social cognition and the underlying brain processes. Her dissertation received the Austrian Price of Excellence for best Austrian Dissertations in 2016. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT (with Rebecca Saxe) sponsored by an Erwin Schrödinger fellowship.

Website: https://tomova.scripts.mit.edu/tomova/

ASciNA Virtual Talk - Livia Tomova

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