By Zoe Bradbury
Researchers at the University of Chicago have tested the possibility that loneliness and social anxiety could be eased by the simple swallowing of a pill.
But can such a complex condition be fixed by medication?
Loneliness is a complex and widespread issue. According to the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report by the Australian Psychological Society, one in four Australians report feelings of being lonely at least one day a week. Globally, 40% of people under 25 years old report feelings of loneliness.
Additionally, the impacts of loneliness and social isolation are staggering: Professor of Neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA, Julianna Holt-Lunstad, claims that feeling lonely poses a greater risk of premature death than smoking or obesity.
Further, loneliness can increase the chances of developing a range of illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases.
Loneliness has been identified as such a problem, that in the UK, a minister for loneliness has been appointed to implement the nations loneliness strategy. This strategy encourages people to improve and strengthen their social relationships.
But is there a solution to such a complex problem? And it is as simple as taking a pill?
Dr Stephanie Cacioppo from the University of Chicago seems to think so. She’s leading the study on the loneliness pill, which aims to change the way the brain and body deals with these feelings of loneliness.
She says the goal is to “reduce the alarm signals in the brain that can result from people feeling lonely to make them better equipped to reach outwards, rather than falling inwards into social isolation,” she told the ABC.
Loneliness occurs as a result of a dysfunctional mind that perceives social danger or anxiety everywhere, combined with basic biological signals that encourage us to reach out to others in order to combat the perceived threat.
When the threat becomes too much, people recede and draw within themselves, creating isolation.
“If we could successfully reduce the alarm system in the minds of lonely individuals, then we could have them reconnect, rather than withdraw from others,” Dr Cacioppo told The Guardian.
The pill works by using a neurosteroid called pregnenolone and allopregnanolone, compounds in the brain that can counteract feelings of loneliness and the hypervigilance that occurs when people are exposed to social threats.
Similar results often occur with the use of antidepressants, but many also contain unwanted side effects such as nausea and insomnia.
Cacioppo’s study is currently undergoing clinical trials and is analysing the data it has collected from May 2017 to June 2019, involving 96 people, who were classified as healthy but lonely, with feelings of social isolation.
The study gave half a 400-milligram dose of the hormone pregnenolone, which is naturally occurring, while the other half were given a placebo.
While the results are yet to be determined, Cacioppo is quietly confident it will reveal a significant reduction in perceived loneliness for those who were given the hormone and not the placebo. This could mean people have less fear of being rejected and are willing to go out of their way to improve their social relations.
In order to be a candidate for Cacioppo’s study, part of the eligibility criteria was to score 42 or higher on the UCLA Loneliness scale.
This poses questions such as “I feel as if nobody really understands me,” “I am unable to reach out and communicate with those around me” and “I feel starved for company.” It asks the user to indicate how often the statements are descriptive of their everyday life. The scale can be found here.
A primarily social condition, other researchers are cautious about the advent of swallowing a pill to reduce loneliness.
Medical ethicist from Monash University’s faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences says that doing so is self-contradictory, and that people should be focusing on relationships and openness to other people.
“What concerns me is that loneliness refers to someone being alone and in need of contact with other people — taking a medication and remaining disconnected from other people would only intensify that aloneness,” he told the ABC.
Additionally, loneliness is not a medical condition like depression or anxiety. Loneliness arises from the interactions with other people, or lack thereof. This makes it a social concern, and what needs to be looked at it our relationships, and the way we form, keep and enhance them.
In summary, a “quick fix” pill fails to acknowledge the underlying reason as to why people are lonely in the first place, and not acknowledging this is simply putting a band aid on a water hole – it’s bound to break soon enough, the problem re-arising.
While depression is commonly treated with pharmaceuticals, they’re usually used in conjunction with psychological therapy, lifestyle adaptions and other tools that can begin to unpack why people feel the way they do and try to improve it.
Loneliness should be handled in the same way, and even Cacioppo, the author of the study, agrees.
“We think about this medication as an adjunct therapy to go along with exercises that you can practice every day when you interact with others,” she said in an interview with the Smithsonian.
“Because the fight with loneliness is a daily fight.”
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