While being alone may be therapeutic, it turns out that being isolated for too long can cause your brain to physically shrink.
When MRIs were performed on a group of eight scientists and one cook who had been cooped up in a research station in Antarctica for 14 months, the results indicated that sections of their brain had actually shrunk. Specifically, the areas of the brain responsible for learning, emotions and memory were most heavily affected, with the section that controls the processing and storing of information from the senses being the hardest hit by the regression.
Scientists believe that the brain – like any muscle – exists on a “use it or lose it” basis. If you don’t hit the gym regularly, your muscles will begin to go dormant. If you’re forced to stare at the same landscape, do the same things, and aren’t properly stimulated by your environment, your brain will behave in much the same way.
Despite other researchers visiting the German station, named “Neumayer III,” during the summer months, the researchers for forced to endure long winter nights where temps can drop down to as low as -50 degrees Celsius.
The results seen in these researchers were quite similar to those seen in astronauts who spent a long amount of time in space. In fact, scientists say that the “social isolation and monotonous environment is the closest thing on Earth to what a space explorer on a long mission may experience,” according to Science News.
Physiologist Alexander Stahn believes that the stint on the frozen continent may have also weakened the emotional intelligence of the researchers, making it more difficult for them to communicate with each other. While it’s unclear whether this actually happened in either a subtle or more noticeable way, it could have impacted the quality and/or quantity of research done by the group.
But it’s not as if scientists haven’t seen this type of brain (in)activity before. In fact, studies have shown that rat brains and human brains behave very similarly when given the same conditions.
From Live Science:
The brain changes seen in the Antarctic team echo similar observations made in rodents, which suggest that prolonged periods of social isolation blunt the brain’s ability to build new neurons. Living in a “monotonous” environment, a place that rarely changes and contains few interesting objects or rooms to explore, seems to prompt changes in rodents’ brains that resemble those seen in the expeditioners, particularly in the hippocampus. As one of the few brain regions to generate neurons into adulthood, the hippocampus continually rewires our neural circuitry as we learn and gain new memories, according to BrainFacts.org.
Scientists are currently working on ways to mitigate the mental deterioration of the men and women in isolation, even going as far as to send and emotional help robot up to space to help the human astronauts.
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