Study: Social interaction helps reverse cravings triggered by isolation

As health professionals look into the effects of the lockdown measures implemented to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s clear that these measures have contributed to increased loneliness and social isolation among many members of the community.

However, even before the pandemic took hold, health professionals warned of increasing social isolation in Australia, with reports indicating that almost a quarter of Australians feel of lonely or social isolated. 

The concern with this is that according to researchers, loneliness and social isolation can have significant impacts on both mental and physical health, leading to anxiety, depression, compulsive overeating, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

According to Dr Kelly Clemens from UNSW Sydney’s School of Psychology, “social isolation in particular can both lead to increased drug taking but can also make it harder for those wanting to cut down or quit”.

This is supported by a new UNSW study in rats, which found that social interaction may help reverse food and cigarette cravings triggered by being in social isolation.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, used an animal model of drug addiction to show that a return to social interaction gives the same result as living in a rich, stimulating environment in reducing cravings for both sugar and nicotine rewards.

“This was an animal study, but we can probably all relate to the mental health benefits of being able to go for a coffee with our friends and having a chat,” says Dr Clemens, lead author of the study.

“Those sorts of activities can divert our attention from being at home and eating and drinking – but they can also be rewarding in and out of themselves, and we come away from those interactions feeling relaxed, happy and valued in a way that means our general demeanour and mental health has improved.”

Dr Clemens says that the study’s researchers wanted to determine if social isolation made quitting negative health behaviours harder and if it also contributed to “initiating cravings”.

“We know that if you’re a regular smoker and you’re trying to give up and then you see somebody else smoking on tv, smell cigarette smoke, or you see a packet of cigarettes, people experience very strong cravings.

“So, we wanted to know if isolation increases the likelihood of picking up on those cues, and of initiating cravings,” explains Dr Clemens.

“Existing evidence tells us that both people and rodents who are anxious, or in a socially isolated environment, pay more attention to substance cues in their environment. These cues are more likely to enter into their long-term memory and they can actually have a bigger influence over behaviour later on,” she adds.

The importance of social interaction highlighted

As part of the study, Dr Clemens examined how cues linked to nicotine influenced the cravings in adult rats in social isolation, and if the cravings could be reversed by returning the animals to group housing.

Cravings were measured by recording the number of times the rat pressed a lever to turn on the cue that had been linked to nicotine.

The research team found that while there was a brief period of abstinence, socially isolated rats were more likely to relapse to nicotine seeking.

Returning to group housing reversed their cravings, highlighting the importance of social interaction in the treatment of substance abuse disorders.

“When we put the rats back with their cage mates, they weren’t interested in the cue for the nicotine anymore, and they showed little evidence of relapse,” says Dr Clemens.

“The key finding of this particular study is the reversal of susceptibility to relapse with that return to group housing.”

Dr Clemens adds that a surprising finding in this study is how rapid the benefit of returning to a social environment is.

“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 says.

Dr Clemens also says the consequences of social isolation are not permanent with their findings suggesting that “something as simple as socialising with friends could reduce cravings” to addictive substances such as nicotine.

“But it’s important to note that this was research done in animals, and how exactly it translates to human behaviour needs to be the subject of further researcher,” she adds.

To read the study, visit: