Researchers home in on a possible genetic basis for loneliness
An intriguing new study has homed in on several specific genomic regions that seem to be associated with traits of social isolation and loneliness. The results suggest genetic traits associated with loneliness also cross over with a susceptibility for bad cardiovascular health and depression.
A massively comprehensive study published in 2017 examined the impact of social isolation on overall mortality and found that loneliness does indeed confer a higher risk of early death. While this isn't necessarily an unexpected finding, the sheer weight of the results was enough to prompt some to label loneliness a looming public health issue.
The UK Biobank is an extraordinary large-scale ongoing experiment following the health of 500,000 volunteers. A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has taken the Biobank information and performed genome-wide analysis on 452,302 participants to try to find a possible biological determinant that corresponds with social isolation.
The research was based on three primary questions all Biobank participants answered relating to self-perceived loneliness, the frequency of social interactions, and their ability to confide in others. Fifteen specific genomic loci were identified as linked to loneliness and social isolation.
Several traits were also found to display a genetic overlap with loneliness. Unsurprisingly, depression was one of the most prominent genetic overlaps. The researchers then omitted individuals with self-reported depression from their data and still homed in on the same 15 genomic loci as relevant for loneliness, suggesting these particular genetic regions specifically influence loneliness in and of itself.
This, of course, raises the complex, and perhaps unanswerable, question of whether something like loneliness and social isolation can be specifically genetically based or whether these traits are simply the result of a combination of other traits. The researchers suggest that their findings do point to clear evidence of a genetic basis behind social traits that would lead to either isolation or interaction.
This isn't the first time scientists have looked into the heritability of social traits such as loneliness. A study involving twins concluded that the degree of social isolation a person faces could be over 50 percent determined by genetics. A more recent study modestly cut that estimate in half, finding genetic links with loneliness tend to blur with other traits such as neuroticism.
The real goal with all this research is to find an effective genetic predictor of people most at risk of social isolation. This would allow doctors and therapists a better opportunity to treat patients suffering from mental health issues.
The new research was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Source: Biobank UK