For many weeks now, people in most parts of the country have been staying home and practicing social isolation in an attempt to help “flatten the curve” of new coronavirus cases.
But social isolation can be very hard on your brain. In fact, researchers with the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, recently found that social isolation can actually cause profound structural changes, even shrinkage, to your brain after just a few months.
I’ll tell you all about that eye-opening study and what you can do, starting today, to counteract the effects of social isolation in just a moment.
But first, let’s discuss why research of this kind is so important…
Mainstream medicine ignores environmental physiology
I’ve always been fascinated with the field of environmental physiology, which studies the impact the immediate environment has on living organisms, including humans. In fact, when I worked as a forensic scientist, I often used the principles of environmental physiology to figure out how deaths occurred.
Of course, mainstream medicine doesn’t place much value on this field of science, as it deals with real-world factors that occur outside the confines of medical clinics, labs, and hospitals. And I find that most modern, mainstream doctors can’t function in the real world…without their high-tech machines, procedures, and tests under near-sterile conditions.
But the University of Pennsylvania has always supported and encouraged research in this field, including my own research with Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg. In fact, when I was in medical school, Dr. Christian Lambertsen (1917 – 2011) ran an entire Environmental Physiology Laboratory, located on Penn’s undergraduate campus. And I remember hearing about Dr. Lambertsen’s treks with his students through the great outdoors to test the limits of human physiology at high latitudes, high altitudes, and deep undersea.
So it also makes sense to me that the Penn researchers would continue Lambertsen’s legacy to study the effects of living in a remote, isolated region of the world…
Spending extended time in social isolation affects the brain
For this new study, Penn researchers wanted to look at the effect of living in a remote, isolating, and monotonous environment on brain function and brain size. So, they studied nine scientists (five men and four women) who were going to live for 14 months in Antarctica at the Neumayer III research station.
They chose to study researchers living in Antarctica for four main reasons…
- The landscape in Antarctica is cold, dark, and dreary—which previous studies have shown can lead to depression.
- Daily life at a research station is monotonous, as the scientists must complete the same tasks every day.
- There is limited opportunity to socialize when living on a research station. And in this case, the researchers only had their small crew of nine for company.
- Because the environment in Antarctica resembles the environment in space, the Penn researchers felt they could apply their findings to NASA astronauts.
So, prior to departing for Antarctica, all participants had brain scans and took brain function tests. Then, they took the same tests upon returning from Antarctica. And here’s what happened…
Major brain changes after just 14 months
The first major finding from the study involved changes to the researchers’ levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that normally promotes the growth of brain cells and synaptic connections among them. But after spending 14 months in Antarctica, the researchers experienced a 45 percent decrease in BDNF.
The researchers also experienced shrinkage in the areas of the brain related to attention span and spatial awareness. This effect probably relates to living in a dark, snowy environment, without orienting landmarks, which reduces stimulation of portions of the brain related to spatial information.
The Antarctica scientists also experienced changes to the hippocampus—a key region of the brain associated with memory. In fact, the scientists’ hippocampi actually shrunk in size by 7 percent. And this finding makes a lot of sense, as previous studies have found that stress harms the hippocampus.
On a positive note, the hippocampus is one of the regions in the brain that demonstrates what we call “neuroplasticity.” In other words, it’s capable of creating new brain cells and new pathways. This finding is good news for the scientists stationed in Antarctica, as it means they may grow back the cells lost during their time in isolation.
It’s also good news for you and me! Because, hopefully, we’ll also grow back any brain cells lost during the coronavirus isolation. But in the meantime, there is something you can do now to offset the negative effects on your brain…
Start this new habit to support your brain function during quarantine
Unless you live in one of the states already beginning to reopen, there’s little more you can do right now about your social isolation. But you can practice daily mindfulness meditation to counteract the effects.
In fact, studies show mindfulness meditation can actually increase the size of brain regions! Plus, short, daily mindfulness sessions can significantly help you deal with the stressors of daily life—especially once quarantine is lifted.
So, here’s a short, five-minute mindfulness program that you can easily work into your daily routine:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and take a few deep breaths. Perhaps outside in Nature, while soaking in some vitamin D-boosting sunshine. Or next to your fragrant spring flowers.
- Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold that thought and repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy.” (Or peaceful, happy, etc.)
- If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your wish for yourself.
- After a few minutes, picture someone you care about.
- Repeat that same wish—“may you be healthy, peaceful, happy, etc.”—for your loved one, while holding his or her image in your mind.
- Now picture someone you don’t have any feelings about—maybe the person who was in front of you in the grocery store line—and direct the wish to them.
- Next, think of someone you have negative feelings toward. Perhaps an obnoxious relative, annoying neighbor, or a difficult co-worker. Then direct the wish toward them.
- Lastly, direct the wish toward the whole world: “May everyone, everywhere be healthy, peaceful, happy, etc.”
- Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you.
Of course, this process can be repeated with different mantras and intentions, and for different people or causes. The purpose is to take the time to be present and focus on positive thoughts. I think you’ll find the result to be quite calming and will help you gain some perspective on what really matters the most to you.
You can learn much more about the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, as well as other drug-free therapeutic therapies, in my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.
P.S. I often talk about the benefits of working from home. In fact, telecommuting has many physical, mental, and emotional benefits, not to mention it reduces the risk of traffic accidents. And I touched on these benefits in the August 2019 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“My secret to a healthy work-life balance”). Subscribers have access to this article and all my past content in the archives. So, if you haven’t already, consider signing up today. Click here now!
“Brain changes in response to long-duration Antarctic expeditions.” New Engl J Med 2019; 381:2273-2275. doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc1904905