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Loneliness & The Immune System

March 8, 2011

The immune systems of chronically lonely people switch from fighting viruses to fighting bacterial infections.



Loneliness and the immune system…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Social isolation can profoundly change how the immune system fights infection, according to a new study. UCLA School of Medicine genomics researcher Steve Cole and his colleagues looked at gene expression in older adults. They found that the immune cells of people who lack a social network turn on different genes.

STEVE COLE (UCLA School of Medicine):

What seems to be happening is the immune system seems to be redeploying its defenses away from viruses and toward bacteria.


He says this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancestors often died from bacterial infections after being wounded by predators or human enemies. But they were more likely to fend off such attacks if they banded together. On the other hand, being in a tight-knit social group exposed them to many viruses, so an immune system that shifted its response to contend with changing social conditions helped them survive. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.