Why Social Isolation Can Bring A Greater Risk of Illness

Summary: Social isolation has previously been linked to shorter life spans and a wide range of health problems in humans. A new study reveals social isolation leads to sleep loss, which, in turn, leads to cellular stress.

Source: University of Pennsylvania.

Penn study found that isolating animals leads to sleep loss, eventually cell stress.

Social isolation has been linked to a wide range of health problems, as well as a shorter lifespan in humans and other animals. In fact, during a U.S. Senate hearing on aging issues this spring, a representative for the Gerontological Society of America urged lawmakers to support programs that help older adults stay connected to their communities, stating that social isolation is a “silent killer that places people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes.”

Now, researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have found a possible explanation for this association. The team observed that in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, social isolation leads to sleep loss, which in turn leads to cellular stress and the activation of a defense mechanism called the unfolded protein response (UPR). Their findings are published online in the journal SLEEP this month. The UPR is found in virtually all animal species. Although its short-term activation helps protect cells from stress, chronic activation can harm cells. Long-term, harmful activation of the UPR is suspected as a contributor to the aging process and to specific age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

Studies also have shown that social isolation is a growing problem in developed countries. In the United States, for example, about half of people older than 85 live alone, and decreased mobility or ability to drive may cut opportunities for other socialization.

“A lot of elderly people live alone, and so we suspect that stresses from the combination of aging and social isolation creates a double-whammy at the cellular and molecular level,” said senior author Nirinjini Naidoo, PhD, a research associate professor of Sleep Medicine. “If you have an age-related disruption of the UPR response, compounded by sleep disturbances, and then you add social isolation, that may be a very unhealthy cocktail.”

This line of research stemmed from a surprise finding by the new study’s first author, Marishka K. Brown, PhD, who was then a postdoctoral researcher at Penn. She is now Program Director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). While evaluating the effects of aging on the UPR in fruit flies, she noticed that molecular markers of UPR activation were at higher levels in flies kept singly in vials, compared to same-aged flies kept in groups.

“Ultimately, she realized that keeping animals isolated induces a cellular stress response and a higher level of UPR activation,” Naidoo said. Markers of UPR activation include the protein BiP, a molecular “chaperone” that helps ensure proper protein folding within cells. Proteins, after being synthesized as simple chains of amino acids, are meant to fold into functional shapes, which are often highly complex. This delicate process is easily disturbed when cells are under stress and can lead to the harmful, runaway clumping of unfolded or misfolded proteins.

As its name suggests, the UPR is supposed to protect against this cellular catastrophe. But when it fails to work efficiently to restore proper protein-folding conditions, and stays activated, it can trigger harmful inflammation, suppress normal, healthy cellular activity, and ultimately force the death of the cell. Scientists have found evidence that this inefficient, chronic response becomes more likely with aging. “When animals get older, you start to see a more maladaptive UPR,” Naidoo said.

Why does social isolation trigger the UPR? Naidoo and others have shown in prior studies that sleep loss induces the UPR in multiple animal species. Other studies have shown that social isolation induces sleep loss, again in multiple species, including humans. When Brown forced the isolated flies to sleep more, for example by giving them the sleep drug Ambien (zolpidem), their levels of UPR markers dropped to those seen in grouped flies. Conversely, when she caused sleep loss in otherwise healthy grouped flies, their levels of UPR markers rose towards the levels seen in socially isolated flies.

Image shows a person running.

“When you keep animals isolated, it basically induces a disturbance of sleep, which then gives rise to a cellular stress that in turn triggers the UPR,” Naidoo said.

Naidoo and her colleagues are continuing to study the connections among aging, sleep loss, the UPR, and age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. “Aging itself seems to make the UPR more defective, but we suspect this is worsened by the fact that aging also tends to cause more fragmented sleep,” Naidoo said.


The other co-author of the study was Ewa Strus, also from Penn.

Funding: Support was provided by the NHLBI (T32 HL07713) and the National Institute on Aging (P01 AG17628).

Source: Karen Kreeger – University of Pennsylvania
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Michael Paolini & Sarah Ly. Adpated from Colwell (2007) Nature Neuroscience.
Original Research: Abstract for “Reduced Sleep During Social Isolation Leads to Cellular Stress and Induction of the Unfolded Protein Response ” by Marishka K. Brown, PhD, Ewa Strus, MS, and Nirinjini Naidoo, PhD in Sleep. Published online May 25 2017 doi:10.1093/sleep/zsx095

University of Pennsylvania “Why Social Isolation Can Bring A Greater Risk of Illness.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 26 June 2017.


Reduced Sleep During Social Isolation Leads to Cellular Stress and Induction of the Unfolded Protein Response

Study Objectives:
Social isolation has a multitude of negative consequences on human health including the ability to endure challenges to the immune system, sleep amount and efficiency, and general morbidity and mortality. These adverse health outcomes are conserved in other social species. In the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, social isolation leads to increased aggression, impaired memory, and reduced amounts of daytime sleep. There is a correlation between molecules affected by social isolation and those implicated in sleep in Drosophila. We previously demonstrated that acute sleep loss in flies and mice induced the unfolded protein response (UPR), an adaptive signaling pathway. One mechanism indicating UPR upregulation is elevated levels of the endoplasmic reticular chaperone BiP/GRP78. We previously showed that BiP overexpression in Drosophila led to increased sleep rebound. Increased rebound sleep has also been demonstrated in socially isolated (SI) flies.

D. melanogaster were used to study the effect of social isolation on cellular stress.


SI flies displayed an increase in UPR markers; there were higher BiP levels, increased phosphorylation of the translation initiation factor eIF2α, and increased splicing of xbp1. These are all indicators of UPR activation. In addition, the effects of isolation on the UPR were reversible; pharmacologically and genetically altering sleep in the flies modulated the UPR.


The reduction in sleep observed in SI flies is a cellular stressor that results in UPR induction.

“Reduced Sleep During Social Isolation Leads to Cellular Stress and Induction of the Unfolded Protein Response ” by Marishka K. Brown, PhD, Ewa Strus, MS, and Nirinjini Naidoo, PhD in Sleep. Published online May 25 2017 doi:10.1093/sleep/zsx095

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connie dello buono

Health educator, author and enterpreneur motherhealth@gmail.com or conniedbuono@gmail.com ; cell 408-854-1883 Helping families in the bay area by providing compassionate and live-in caregivers for homebound bay area seniors. Blogs at www.clubalthea.com Currently writing a self help and self cure ebook to help transform others in their journey to wellness, Healing within, transform inside and out. This is a compilation of topics Connie answered at quora.com and posts in this site.

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