[Prolonged social isolation can do severe, long-lasting damage to
the brain ] [https://portside.org/] 



 Dana G. Smith 
 November 9, 2018
Scientific American

	* [https://portside.org/node/18588/printable/print]

 _ Prolonged social isolation can do severe, long-lasting damage to
the brain _ 

 , Francesco Carta Getty Images 


SAN DIEGO—Robert King spent 29 years living alone in a six by
nine-foot prison cell.

He was part of the “Angola Three”—a trio of men kept in solitary
confinement for decades and named for the Louisiana state penitentiary
where they were held. King was released in 2001 after a judge
overturned his 1973 conviction for killing a fellow inmate. Since his
exoneration he has dedicated his life to raising awareness about the
psychological harms of solitary confinement.

“People want to know whether or not I have psychological problems,
whether or not I’m crazy—‘How did you not go insane?’” King
told a packed session at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting
here this week. “I look at them and I tell them, ‘I did not tell
you I was not insane.’ I don’t mean I was psychotic or anything
like that, but being placed in a six by nine by 12–foot cell for 23
hours a day, no matter how you appear on the outside, you are not

There are an estimated 80,000 people, mostly men, in solitary
confinement in U.S. prisons. They are confined to windowless cells
roughly the size of a king bed for 23 hours a day, with virtually no
human contact except for brief interactions with prison guards.
According to scientists speaking at the conference session, this type
of social isolation and sensory deprivation can have traumatic effects
on the brain, many of which may be irreversible. Neuroscientists,
lawyers and activists such as King have teamed up with the goal of
abolishing solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment.

Most prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement remain there for one
to three months (pdf
although nearly a quarter spend over a year there; the minimum amount
of time is usually 15 days. The most common reasons for being sent to
solitary are for preventive measures, which can be indefinite, or for
punishment, which is more likely to have a set end point. Several
states have passed legislation limiting who can be in solitary
confinement, including mentally ill and juvenile offenders, and for
how long. The United Nations recommends banning solitary confinement
for more than 15 days, saying any longer constitutes torture.

Even in less extreme cases than that of the Angola Three, prolonged
social isolation—feeling lonely, not just being alone—can exact
severe physical, emotional and cognitive consequences. It is
associated with a 26 percent increased risk
[https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25910392] of premature death,
largely stemming from an out of control stress response that results
in higher cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and inflammation.
Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of suicide
“We see solitary confinement as nothing less than a death penalty by
social deprivation,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor
of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of
Chicago, who was on the panel with King.

For good or bad, the brain is shaped by its environment—and the
social isolation and sensory deprivation King experienced likely
changed his. Chronic stress damages the hippocampus
[https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4561403/], a brain area
important for memory, spatial orientation and emotion regulation. As a
result, socially isolated people experience memory loss, cognitive
decline and depression. Studies show
[https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006322300009719] depression
results in additional cell death in the hippocampus as well as the
loss of a growth factor that has antidepressant-like properties,
creating a vicious cycle. When sensory deprivation and an absence of
natural light are thrown into the mix, people can experience psychosis
and disruptions in the genes that control the body’s natural
circadian rhythms. “Social deprivation is bad for brain structure
and function. Sensory deprivation is bad for brain structure and
function. Circadian dysregulation is bad,” said Huda Akil, a
professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan who was also
on the panel. “Loneliness in itself is extremely damaging.”

King has experienced lasting cognitive changes from his time in
solitary confinement. His memory is impaired and he has lost his
ability to navigate, both of which are signs of damage to the
hippocampus. At one point he was unable to recognize faces, but that
problem has passed. Cacioppo speculated that social areas of his brain
that were not being used, like those involved in facial recognition,
might have atrophied during his time in solitary. Supporting this
idea, recent research conducted in mice by neuroscientist Richard
Smeyne at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and presented at
the conference revealed that after one month of social isolation,
neurons in sensory and motor regions of the brain had shrunk by 20

The question remains as to whether these neuronal changes are
permanent or can be reversed. Akil said, however, she doubts “you
can live through that experience and come out with the same brain you
went in with, and not in a good way.”

King said he survived the ordeal because he recognized that his case
was “politicized,” and bigger than himself. He and many supporters
believe the Angola Three were targeted and falsely convicted because
they were members of the Black Panther party. Their cases were later
taken up by the United Nations as an example of the inhumanity of
solitary confinement. According to Cacioppo, King’s connection to a
larger group and larger purpose likely gave him the resilience to
survive the ordeal. “Collective identity is protective against
individual loneliness,” she noted.

By pairing their research with King’s experience, the
neuroscientists on the panel hope to move the needle on people’s
perspectives and policy around the issue. Jules Lobel, a professor of
law at the University of Pittsburgh and the sole lawyer on the panel,
thinks they can: Neuroscience research played a role in a class action
lawsuit he won against solitary confinement in California.
“Neuroscience can not only be a powerful tool for understanding the
human condition,” he said, “but can also play an important role in
changing the conditions that humans live under.”

_Stories by Dana G. Smith

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