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UCLA

Lonely? It's in your genes

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By David Landau

Published Sep 27, 2007 9:57 AM


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We all know that loneliness, like stress, can affect health, and may even contribute to early death. Now Bruin researchers have opened the door to understanding the science of loneliness with a new study published in Genome Biology. Research into people who score higher on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a widely used measure developed here in the 1970's, reveals that loneliness is more than just an emotion. In fact, it's in our genes.

"While all cells have one's complete DNA sequence, only a minority of potential genes is expressed in the making of different types of cells," such as liver cells or lung cells, says Steve Cole, one of the study's co-authors and an associate professor of medicine in the division of Hematology-Oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine, as well as a member of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. "Certain genes were turned on in [lonely peoples'] cells, while others weren't."

And this wasn't just a random gene here or there. The study found more than 200 "lonely" gene transcripts that were different than normal, with white blood cells being "remodeled" in chronically lonely people. Those changes, which affect the immune system, are what draw a red flag from Cole, who notes that "They all seemed to express different things: increased inflammation, a known risk factor for diseases, which is linked to social isolation; a reduced expression of genes that support the production of antibodies, markers in the fight against pathogens; and reduced interferon activity, a part of white blood cells that stops viruses from replicating."

With loneliness affecting health so adversely, could it be that hanging out with that moocher friend once in a while isn't such a bad idea? Maybe not, says Cole: "We found that what counts at the level of gene expression is not how many people you know, [but] how many you feel really close to over time."

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