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Loneliness Can Make You Sick

Reduced production of myelin, a type of protective nerve fiber that is lost in diseases like multiple sclerosis, may also play a role in the development of mental illness. Myelin is an insulating material that wraps around the axon, the threadlike part of a nerve cell through which the cell sends impulses to other nerve cells. Depriving mice of social contact reduced their myelin production. Does this make MS a "lonely" disease?

Neuroscientist Patrizia Casaccia says, "We knew that a lack of social interaction early in life impacted myelination in young animals but were unsure if these changes would persist in adulthood. Social isolation of adult mice causes behavioral and structural changes in neurons, but this is the first study to show that it causes myelin dysfunction as well."

This research provides further support to earlier evidence of abnormal myelin in a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including autism, anxiety, schizophrenia and depression. Casaccia says, "Our research emphasizes the importance of maintaining a socially stimulating environment in these instances."

Researchers have found that older people with fewer human contacts are more likely to die--even if they’re happy in their solitude--than are people with richer social lives. But social isolation and loneliness aren't the same things. Social isolation is an objective condition in which people have little interaction with others. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotional state felt by people who are dissatisfied with their social connections. On Wired.com, Traci Watson quotes epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe as saying, "Someone who’s socially isolated is likely to be lonely, and vice versa, but that's not completely the case. There are plenty of people who are socially isolated but who are perfectly happy with that."

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