Summary: People with social anxiety have increased amygdala activity during social decision making, and reduced activity in the nucleus accumbens during social feedback. Those who are lonely did not experience the same alterations as those with social anxiety, suggesting loneliness is a unique condition.
Despite similar symptoms, loneliness and social anxiety are driven by different brain states, according to new research published in Journal of Neuroscience.
Loneliness can have detrimental consequences on physical and mental health, yet there are currently few behavioral interventions for loneliness like there are for other conditions.
Lieberz et al. explored the basis for these two conditions by comparing how people with social anxiety and high and low loneliness behaved in a social gambling task.
Participants played a computer game where they could make a safe bet and win a smaller amount of money or make a riskier bet for a larger sum. If they took the riskier bet, they watched a video of a virtual human showing approval or disapproval.
Amygdala activity was significantly enhanced during the decision phase of the social gambling task when participants chose the risky option with a human partner compared to the computer partner. Credit: Lieberz et al., JNeurosci 2021
People with social anxiety took the safe bet more often to avoid social feedback from the videos. But people with high loneliness did not display this social avoidance.
By measuring the participants’ brain activity during the task with fMRI, the researchers found people with social anxiety displayed increased amygdala activation during the decision phase — a sign of heightened anxiety — and reduced nucleus accumbens activation during the feedback phase — a sign of reduced social reward.
Neither activity pattern appeared in people with high loneliness, indicating loneliness is a unique condition requiring its own interventions.
About this social anxiety and loneliness research news
Author: Calli McMurray
Contact: Calli McMurray – SfN
Image: The image is credited to Lieberz et al., JNeurosci 2021
Original Research: Closed access.
“Behavioral and neural dissociation of social anxiety and loneliness” by Lieberz et al. Journal of Neuroscience
Behavioral and neural dissociation of social anxiety and loneliness
Loneliness is a public health concern with detrimental effects on physical and mental well-being. Given phenotypical overlaps between loneliness and social anxiety (SA), cognitive-behavioral interventions targeting SA might be adopted to reduce loneliness. However, whether SA and loneliness share the same underlying neurocognitive mechanisms is still an elusive question.
The current study aimed at investigating to what extent known behavioral and neural correlates of social avoidance in SA are evident in loneliness.