Loneliness and genes versus destiny

First, a bit of science: computers that use “quantum computing” have been shown to do certain tasks faster than regular computers. Now this is not a completely fair test, but quantum machines might not be that far away from being commercially available.

Genes and destiny



Can you spot who is running and who really isn’t? 🙂

(fast runners: Dr. Andy’s wife; mile 21 at the Boston Marathon….I don’t need to tell you which photo is which)

My point: it would be foolish to say that genes don’t matter; they certainly do. People have genetic limitations: for example, there was a zero percent chance I’d be an athlete or a world class mathematician or scientist. There is a zero percent chance that someone with Downs syndrome will understand the mathematics of quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, genes are not destiny. For one: babies with fetal alcohol syndrome are given the proper genes; the genes don’t express themselves properly when they are gestating.

And even after birth, gene expression is affected by life’s experiences; here is an experiment with mice that demonstrates this:

How do people and other organisms evolve into individuals that are distinguished from others by their own personal brain structure and behavior?

Why do identical twins not resemble each other perfectly even when they grew up together?

To shed light on these questions, the scientists observed 40 genetically identical mice that were kept in an enclosure that offered a rich shared environment with a large variety of activity and exploration options.

They showed that individual experiences influence the development of new neurons in mice, leading to measurable changes in the brain.

“The animals were not only genetically identical, they were also living in the same environment,” explained principal investigator Gerd Kempermann, Professor for Genomics of Regeneration, CRTD, and Site Speaker of the DZNE in Dresden. “However, this environment was so rich that each mouse gathered its own individual experiences in it. Over time, the animals therefore increasingly differed in their realm of experience and behavior.”

Each of the mice was equipped with a special microchip emitting electromagnetic signals. This allowed the scientists to construct the mice movement profiles and quantify their exploratory behavior.

The result: despite a common environment and identical genes, the mice showed highly individualized behavioral patterns. In the course of the three-month experiment, these differences increased in size.

Surf to the article to read the rest.

Gene expression can be altered later in life, even by things such as, well, being lonely.
Loneliness (not craved solitude that many of us want from time to time) has very real behavioral health effects:

Loneliness, says John T. Cacioppo, an award-winning psychologist at the University of Chicago, undermines people’s ability to self-regulate. In one experiment he cites, participants made to feel socially disconnected ate many more cookies than those made to feel socially accepted. In a real-life study of middle-aged and older adults in the Chicago area, Dr. Cacioppo and colleagues found that those who scored high on the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale, a widely used psychological assessment, ate substantially more fatty foods than those who scored low. “Is it any wonder that we turn to ice cream or other fatty foods when we’re sitting at home feeling all alone in the world?” Dr. Cacioppo said in his well-documented book, “Loneliness,” written with William Patrick. “We want to soothe the pain we feel by mainlining sugar and fat content to the pleasure centers of the brain, and absent of self-control, we go right at it.”

He explained that lonely individuals tend to do whatever they can to make themselves feel better, if only for the moment. They may overeat, drink too much, smoke, speed or engage in indiscriminate sex.

A review of research published in 1988 found that “social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death,” Dr. Cacioppo wrote.

Loneliness can even influence how genes are expressed, Dr. Cacioppo has found. Loneliness predicted changes in DNA transcription that in turn dampened the body’s ability to shut off the inflammatory response, he reported. A study by Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, assessed loneliness among 1,604 older adults and followed them for six years. Those who were lonely were more likely to develop difficulties performing activities of daily living like bathing and dressing, using their arms and shoulders, climbing stairs and walking. Loneliness was also associated with an increased risk of death during the study period.

It’s not surprising that loneliness has also been linked to cognitive decline. A Dutch study published last year in The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry found that participants who reported feeling lonely — regardless of how many friends and family surrounded them — were more likely to develop dementia than those who lived on their own but were not lonely.

The New Republic has a longer article on the subject:

n a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since Fromm-Reichmann laid it out. “Real loneliness,” as she called it, is not what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. Nor is “real loneliness” the happy solitude of the productive artist or the passing irritation of being cooped up with the flu while all your friends go off on some adventure. It’s not being dissatisfied with your companion of the moment—your friend or lover or even spouse— unless you chronically find yourself in that situation, in which case you may in fact be a lonely person. Fromm-Reichmann even distinguished “real loneliness” from mourning, since the well-adjusted eventually get over that, and from depression, which may be a symptom of loneliness but is rarely the cause. Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy.

Today’s psychologists accept Fromm-Reichmann’s inventory of all the things that loneliness isn’t and add a wrinkle she would surely have approved of. They insist that loneliness must be seen as an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition. Loneliness “is not synonymous with being alone, nor does being with others guarantee protection from feelings of loneliness,” writes John Cacioppo, the leading psychologist on the subject. Cacioppo privileges the emotion over the social fact because—remarkably—he’s sure that it’s the feeling that wreaks havoc on the body and brain. Not everyone agrees with him, of course. Another school of thought insists that loneliness is a failure of social networks. The lonely get sicker than the non-lonely, because they don’t have people to take care of them; they don’t have social support.

I am not qualified to have a professional opinion, but it makes sense to me that the social support aspect is real.

So who is lonely? It appears that those who feel “shut out” by the rest of the community:

Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different. Surveys confirm that people who feel discriminated against are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t, even when they don’t fall into the categories above. Women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women). African Americans are lonelier than whites (though single African American women are less lonely than Hispanic and white women). The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.

A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part. Psychologists discovered this by, among other things, studying the experience of gay men during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, when the condition was knocking out their immune systems, and, as it seemed at first, only theirs. The nation ignored the crisis for a while, then panicked. Soon, people all over the country were calling for gay men to be quarantined.

Again, I haven’t studied this, nor am I qualified to. But this might explain why I crave the company of those who are similar: a bit nerdy, interested in physical stuff (swimming, walking long distances, running) and who don’t have a constant reliance on an imaginary sky-daddy who has singled out the earth and homo sapiens for special treatment.

Fortunately, I have faculty friends and, in my sport(s), I have a natural affinity for those who actually care about their performances (versus those who merely do it for fitness or those who “do it” just to “finish”). Yes, among those who care about their performances, I am definitely at the low end but it is the idea that striving to do one’s best is a good idea that creates the bond, I think.


May 15, 2013 - Posted by | running, science, social/political | , , ,


  1. Given the fare on your blog, you should have seen my wife’s face when I told her that her picture was on “Blue Ollie”

    Comment by Dr. Andy | May 16, 2013 | Reply

  2. Also, note those guys are 21 miles into a marathon at the top of Heartbreak Hill and cranking out miles at or below 5 minutes/per

    Comment by Dr. Andy | May 16, 2013 | Reply

    • Oh yes….this was a great photo. I’ll give attribution.

      Comment by blueollie | May 16, 2013 | Reply

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