Researchers Are Testing a Pill That Treats Loneliness

Loneliness, in a very real sense, has become an epidemic in the modern world. If that sounds like hyperbole, we’d like to point you in the direction of this interview with former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, in which he makes exactly that claim. But the good news is that there are possibilities for a “cure” to the epidemic. And curing your loneliness may be as simple as popping a pill.

It may sound like something out of Brave New World, but researchers are looking into making a real pill that would combat loneliness, and hopefully allow people to reconnect with one another. In a Guardian article from earlier this year, Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, discussed her ongoing research into a medication that could help lonely people feel less of the physical pain associated with the emotional state; it may also lessen their fear of socializing with others.

In her interview with the Guardian, Cacioppo points out that loneliness is an emotional state that results from biological signals in the brain, which can be tweaked by a neurosteroid known as pregnenolone. (Neurosteroids are exogenous brain steroids that are molecularly similar to the mood-affecting hormone, cortisone.) Which means that even though Wikipedia defines loneliness as “a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation,” it’s possible it still may be treated like a mental disorder that can be relieved with medication.

In a 2015 paper titled Why May Allopregnanolone Help Alleviate Loneliness?, Cacioppo and her late husband John explored the possibility of using Allopregnanolone (ALLO), another neurosteroid, to help treat loneliness. They noted in the abstract for the paper that “both human and animal research show that perceived social isolation (which can be defined behaviorally in animals and humans) has detrimental effects on physical health…” and said they were aiming to see if ALLO given in the form of medication could help alleviate people’s suffering.

Four years later, the neurosteroid Cocioppo is administering has changed, but the goal has not. In her most recent study, which ended in June, 2019, Cocioppo administered 400mg of pregnenolone to “individuals with perceived social isolation,” with the intention of helping them to perceive others as less threatening, and therefore more inviting as a point of social contact. And while data from the study is still being analyzed, evidence that pregnenolone may be an effective medication for loneliness would be significant. “If we could successfully reduce the alarm system in the minds of lonely individuals,” Cocioppo told the Guardian, “then we could have them reconnect, rather than withdraw from others.”

Aside from administering pregnenolone, there is at least one other way to help people dealing with perceived social isolation highlighted by Cocioppo, and that is with Cognitive Behavior Therapies (CBT). The Cocioppos write in the conclusion to their 2015 study that while CBT can be “expensive and time-consuming,” it can also be an effective way to help people perceive social interactions as less threatening. And that in itself seems like an important takeaway from Cocioppo’s research: It’s not that people don’t want to socialize, it’s that they’re afraid to. Good thing reaching out to somebody with ISP doesn’t require a prescription.

Feature image: Victor Gudzelyak

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