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Soc Neurosci. 2019 Apr;14(2):136-148. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2018.1445027. Epub 2018 Feb 28.

An fMRI study of loneliness in younger and older adults.

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a Department of Psychology , Stony Brook University , Stony Brook , NY , USA.
b Department of Psychiatry , Stony Brook Medicine , Stony Brook , NY , USA.
c Department of Radiology , Stony Brook University , Stony Brook , NY , USA.


Loneliness, the subjective experience of social isolation, may reflect, in part, underlying neural processing of social signals. Aging may exacerbate loneliness due to decreased social networks and increased social isolation, or it may reduce loneliness due to preferential attentional processing of positive information and increased interactions with emotionally close partners. Here, we conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of loneliness in younger (N = 50, 26 female, Mage = 20.4) and older (N = 49, 30 female, Mage = 62.9) adults. Compared to younger adults, older adults were less lonely and dwelled longer on faces, regardless of valence. Previous studies in younger adults found that loneliness was negatively correlated with ventral striatal (VS) activation to pleasant social pictures of strangers yet positively correlated with VS activation to faces of close others. In the present study, we observed no association between loneliness and VS activation to social pictures of strangers in either age group. Further, unlike previous studies, we observed no association between social network size and amygdala activation to social stimuli. Additional research is needed to examine the effect of loneliness and social network size on neural processing of different dimensions of social stimuli.


Aging; eye tracking; fMRI; loneliness; social network size

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