Social interaction can help reverse cravings for food and cigarettes triggered by social isolation, a UNSW study in rats has found.
The study, published in Scientific reports, used an animal model of drug addiction to show that a return to social interaction yields the same result as living in a rich and stimulating environment by reducing cravings for sugar and nicotine rewards.
“This was an animal study, but we can probably all understand the mental health benefits of being able to have coffee with our friends and chat,” said lead author Dr Kelly Clemens of UNSW Sydney School of Psychology.
“These types of activities can distract our attention from being at home and eating and drinking – but they can also be rewarding in themselves, and we come out of these interactions feeling relaxed, happy and valued. in a way that signifies our general behavior and mental health has improved.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation was already increasing in Australia, with nearly a quarter of Australians reporting feelings of loneliness or social isolation.
The researcher said social isolation could have a significant impact on mental and physical health. This can lead to anxiety, depression, compulsive overeating, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
“Social isolation in particular can both lead to increased drug use, but can also make it more difficult for those who wish to reduce or quit smoking,” said Dr Clemens.
The UNSW Scientia Fellow is interested in the reasons why people relapse into drug use – in this case, nicotine – when they are socially isolated.
“We know that if you are a regular smoker and you try to quit and you see someone else smoking on TV, smelling cigarette smoke, or seeing a pack of cigarettes, people get very strong feelings. cravings, ”she said. .
“So we wanted to know if isolation increases the likelihood of picking up these signals and triggering cravings.”
The influence of substance indices
Existing evidence tells us that people and rodents who are anxious, or in a socially isolated environment, pay more attention to substance signals in their environment, she said.
These clues are more likely to enter their long-term memory.
“And they can actually have a bigger influence on behavior later on,” she said.
While many studies have focused on the effect of isolation on adolescents, Dr. Clemens has focused on adult rats in this research.
The researcher examined how signals related to nicotine consumption influenced cravings in socially isolated adult rats, and whether cravings could be reversed by returning animals to group housing.
They measured cravings by recording the number of times the rat pressed a lever to activate the nicotine signal.
The team found that after a brief period of abstinence, socially isolated rats were much more likely to relapse in search of nicotine.
But their desires were reversed once they returned to group accommodation, stressing the importance of social interaction in treating substance abuse disorders.
“When we returned the rats with their cage mates, they were no longer interested in the nicotine signal and they showed little sign of relapse,” said Dr Clemens.
“The main finding of this particular study is the reversal of relapse susceptibility with this return to group housing.”
Benefit of the social environment
Dr Clemens said she was surprised the benefit of returning to a social environment was so quick.
“The impact of social isolation took much longer to manifest, suggesting that social interaction may have a lasting protective effect against the development and relapse of addiction,” she said. .
Fellow Scientia said research has shown that the consequences of social isolation for drug use are not permanent.
“Smokers who wish to quit often receive a pharmacological response to their addiction. They can access many drugs and alternative therapies that can have varying results, ”she said.
“Our results suggest that something as simple as socializing with your friends may reduce these cravings and make you less likely to smoke. This is consistent with other recent evidence this suggests that people crave social interaction and that isolation interacts with the brain’s reward circuits.
“But it’s important to note that this was research done on animals, and exactly how that translates to human behavior needs further research.”
While the study focused on nicotine, Dr Clemens found a similar result from the sugar which was used as a control measure in the study.
“This tells us that our findings likely extend to other foods and drinks high in fat and sugar. It’s possible that if we conducted a similar study with alcohol and other drugs, we would find a similar pattern. But we would have to test this specifically.
Dr Clemens said a follow-up study could determine whether social isolation causes long-term or transient changes in the brain that underlie the behavioral changes she has observed.
Read the study in Scientific reports.