Work will tell us how loneliness interacts with brain structure and function in normal aging and pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease

Two researchers from The Neuro, with collaborators from the StoP-AD Centre at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, will lead a research program centered on an emerging field of neuroscience thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Aging (NIH/NIA) in the USA.

The grant, expected to total $2.7M CAD ($2M USD) over five years, will fund a project led by Nathan Spreng and Danilo Bzdok to investigate the relationship between loneliness and brain structure/function in typically aging people and in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

It is known that feelings of loneliness in later life are associated with poor health outcomes, including loss of cognitive ability, greater dementia risk, and higher mortality rates. Yet there is a lot we do not know about how loneliness impacts the brain in older adults. Previous work from Spreng and Bzdok has demonstrated that the default network, an assembly of regions closely overlapping the ‘social brain’, is vulnerable to both loneliness and AD. This suggests that loneliness and neuropathological changes may interact to shape the course of brain aging and progression to AD.

The NIH/NIA-funded project will advance our understanding of this subject in two ways, making use of two large databases.

  1. The scientists will use the UK Biobank, currently the world’s largest open-access medical database, to develop pattern-learning models that compare aging in non-lonely individuals to aging in the brain of people who experience loneliness.
  2. The team will study people at potential risk for AD to determine how loneliness affects their brain structure and function, and how these effects might influence the progression of AD biomarkers. The data is collected as part of a continuing collaboration between Spreng and the ongoing PREVENT-AD project led by Judes Poirier and Sylvia Villeneuve at the StoP-AD Centre.

With Spreng’s expertise in modelling the relationship between brain and cognitive changes in aging and AD, and Bzdok’s knowledge of tailoring machine learning algorithms to chart and extract insight from population-scale datasets, they form a highly complementary team to lead this exciting project.

“This funding support will be extremely valuable in advancing our understanding of how social isolation and feelings of loneliness impact the brain and cognitive functioning in older adults,” says Spreng. “And these questions are becoming even more urgent in the context of the current pandemic.”

“We are grateful to the National Institutes of Health in the USA to acknowledge the promise and potential of integrating big and deep biomedical data in driving progress at the intersection of social isolation and its manifestations in the brain,” says Bzdok. “In the current climate, it is more important than ever to explore how periods of social isolation can impact the progression of neurological disorders in general and Alzheimer’s disease in particular. Since we are all different, and each of us may experience moments of social deprivation differently, harnessing population cohorts from the broader society using state-of-the-art machine learning tools is a particular attractive avenue to go forward.”

The funding was awarded under NIH grant number R01AG068563

October 13, 2020