The default network of the human brain is associated with perceived social isolation.
Spreng RN., Dimas E., Mwilambwe-Tshilobo L., Dagher A., Koellinger P., Nave G., Ong A., Kernbach JM., Wiecki TV., Ge T., Li Y., Holmes AJ., Yeo BTT., Turner GR., Dunbar RIM., Bzdok D.
Humans survive and thrive through social exchange. Yet, social dependency also comes at a cost. Perceived social isolation, or loneliness, affects physical and mental health, cognitive performance, overall life expectancy, and increases vulnerability to Alzheimer's disease-related dementias. Despite severe consequences on behavior and health, the neural basis of loneliness remains elusive. Using the UK Biobank population imaging-genetics cohort (n = ~40,000, aged 40-69 years when recruited, mean age = 54.9), we test for signatures of loneliness in grey matter morphology, intrinsic functional coupling, and fiber tract microstructure. The loneliness-linked neurobiological profiles converge on a collection of brain regions known as the 'default network'. This higher associative network shows more consistent loneliness associations in grey matter volume than other cortical brain networks. Lonely individuals display stronger functional communication in the default network, and greater microstructural integrity of its fornix pathway. The findings fit with the possibility that the up-regulation of these neural circuits supports mentalizing, reminiscence and imagination to fill the social void.