Nine expeditioners spent 14 months in Antarctica and ended up with a smaller brain… but the effect may extend to casual travellers too.
Being lonely for long affected the brain, the organ critical for generating new neurons for learning and memory. Human brains are also highly sensitive to social isolation and extreme seclusion impacting it with countless negative adverse effects.
Imagine if you have been confined to a monotonous environment with no or little social interaction. Human beings are called social animals and emotionally connected to everything, whether living or non-living. Moreover, all these emotions are connected to our sole decision-maker, i.e. the Human Brain.
However, a research published by The New England Journal of Medicine on nine expeditioners who went to Antarctica for 14 months speculated that lonely monotonous environment and prolonged isolation like in exploration trips shrinks and might damage human brains. The research team scanned and examined the brains before and after the trip and found aberrant effects.
Effects the most important part of the brain: Hippocampus
The hippocampus is one of the major components of the brains of all vertebrate animals, including humans too. It plays an essential role in the functioning of the limbic system, i.e. in the formation, organization and storage of new memories and highly associated with the ability to process learning, emotions and interaction with others.
The research found that the process of spatial memories are connected with different sub-regions of the hippocampus. Such as a particular scent sometimes trigger a strong memory of your past, and it also helps you in memorizing the complex road navigation.
Moreover, in the study, it was found that prolonged isolation affected the brain’s ability to build new neurons. The hippocampus keeps on generating the new neurons, which is essential for human beings, especially into adulthood as hippocampus continuously rewires the neural circuitry as every individual learn and gain new memories. The changes resemble in those expeditioners were similar in rodent’s brains too, particularly affecting the hippocampus.
One Brain Several Affects: Solo Holidays Can Damage Human Brains
- When the scientist examined the human brains, they also measured BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) of all nine expeditioners. BDNF is an internal level protein that supports the growth of new neurons and permits the growing or budding cells to survive. In short, BDNF is essential for healthy brain functioning.
- Without BDNF, the hippocampus could not create new neural connections. In this observation, scientist found that the expeditioners lost hippocampus and BDNF levels. Most important was to note that BDNF volume levels that reduced had not returned to its normal stage even after one and a half months of their return from the Antarctica trip.
- The Denate Gyrus also shrunk by 4% to 10%. It is a part of the hippocampus which records memories of events. Due to volume loss, it affected the spatial processing and selective attention.
- Left parahippocampal gyrus, left orbitofrontal cortex and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were the few spots on the cerebral cortex that too shrunk during the expeditioners’ 14 frigid months.
- The monotonous environment like on solo holidays have psychological effects on the human brain such as changes to the sleep cycle, depression, anxiety or even psychosis-like hallucinations and paranoia from shrinkage and damage.
- In the long run, it can lead to prolonged difficulties with decision making, storing memories and above all recalling the events that could be even long or short term.