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Link Between Social Isolation, Addiction

Feeling alone and being alone are very powerful feelings and emotions.  This is especially true for people in their adolescence.  Now there seems to be evidence pointing to a link between social isolation and substance addiction.   According to a new study published in the journal Neuron social isolation during adolescence can lead to greater vulnerability to alcohol and amphetamine addiction later in life.

The study, conducted by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, was performed on rats to document the effects of social isolation on the areas of the brain connected to addiction.

During the research, the rats involved in the study were isolated from their peers 21 days after birth for a span of about a month. This period is comparable to early-to-mid adolescence in humans. The researchers then measured the animals’ response to varying levels of alcohol and amphetamine and compared them to a control group of rats that were not isolated.

The results were that the isolated rats were much more likely to develop a dependency on amphetamine or alcohol after a single exposure than their group-housed peers, while the control group subjects required repeated exposures before developing preferences.  Additionally, the isolated rats took considerably longer to overcome their addictions once cut off from alcohol and amphetamines.

According to Hitoshi Morikawa, associate professor of neurobiology in the College of Natural Sciences, the study may have implications for how adolescent social isolation affects the brain in other areas of dependency and addiction. The theory being that the lack of rewarding stimuli due to being isolated, makes the brain increase its sensitivity to any kind of reward-based stimuli.  “The deprived brain may be overinterpreting any reward it encounters. And if that’s the case, it’s likely that you are more conditionable not only to drugs but to any sort of reward, including food reward. One interesting possibility is that it might also make adolescents more prone to food ‘addiction,’ and then to obesity.”

These findings in rats seem to go with what we know about humans. Social isolation in humans, where a person is cut off from society for an extended period of time, is known to be a risk factor for morbidity and mortality. It primarily affects the elderly, the poor, and minorities, and is a fast-growing problem in a country with a population that is increasingly aged, poor, and non-white.

Having spent nine years nearly completely isolated from everyone but my father due to a mélange of then-undiagnosed mental disorders, I can attest to the negative effects of isolating and denying oneself one of the essentials of a healthy and productive life: human interaction.

I am fortunate that I did not succumb to addiction during my isolation but the price I paid for depriving myself of human interaction was enormous, and no doubt can be connected to the biological and environmental triggers of my numerous maladies. Learning how to rein in my disorders has required years of therapy, a multitude of psychotropics, and tools to help me engage in behaviors that are contrary to my instinct, which is heavily weighted towards being alone and avoiding the pressures of confronting the world on a daily basis.

The fact is that had I not resorted to isolating myself in the first place, I would be in a far better place than I am now.  While my life experiences have made me who I am today, and the person I am today is much closer to the person I want to be, I would definitely not take the same path to get here if given the opportunity to start over.  It is no fun to be alone, or feel alone.



  1. “In Rat Model, Social Isolation Leads To Greater Vulnerability To Addiction.”  Medical News Today.  27 January 2013.  Web.  05 February 2013.
  2. Cacioppo, J.T. Hawkley, L.C.  “Social isolation and health, with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms.”  National Center for Biotechnology Information.  National Institute of Health.  2003.  Web.  05 February 2013.


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Filed under: Addiction, Conditions and Disorders · Tags: Addiction, amphetamine, Feeling alone, isolation, isolation and adolescence, Loneliness, Social Isolation

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