What role social interaction plays in maintaining mental health?

According to a study at the University of Lethbridge, social interaction affects brain functionality, but the pandemic has taken a toll on our natural ability to be socially active.

The research study — Regional Differences in BDNF Expression and Behavior as a Function of Sex and Enrichment Type: Oxytocin Matters — is published in Oxford Academic.

Drs. Gerlinde Metz and Jamshid Faraji (Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience) have led a research study to examine the effects of physical and social interactions on brain health.

“We showed in 2018 that social support is particularly impactful on females and their mental health,” says Metz of their studies in rodent models. “We also discovered that social support helps with longevity and can actually slow down biological aging. We focused on oxytocin levels in the brain because it is the bonding hormone that downregulates stress.”

The research explains the mechanism behind how oxytocin works.

“This is particularly important now because we realized the critical role of social support and loneliness and mental health during the pandemic amid the heightened levels of stress and anxiety specifically among pregnant mothers,” adds Metz. “The stress we experience now has potentially transgenerational consequences and may be passed down to offspring three or four generations down the road. We want to understand what we can do to mitigate the effects of that stress and to do so, we need to understand how stress affects the brain.”

The study focused on the relationship between oxytocin and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — “the most abundant neurotrophic factor in the nervous system.”

Metz calls the BNDF “the fountain of youth.”

“BDNF actually leads to better learning, better mental health, brain development and healthy aging — it’s really beneficial in every way,” she says. “It acts on brain function throughout our lifespan and even enhances the survival of neurons and regeneration of neurons in the brain.”

The study examined the effects of oxytocin interaction on the brain by injecting an antagonist to block the effects of oxytocin. The results show that without oxytocin interaction, BNDF significantly decreased, depriving the brain from the beneficial effects. This means that lack of social interaction, leads to less oxytocin, which leads to lower BDNF expression.

“This was a causal link that we’d been missing before,” explains Metz.



The study also suggested that both physical interaction and social interaction are two important factors for both males and females, but physical interaction resonated more with males, while social interaction resonated more with females.

“We have to be careful when we look at animal research and compare it to humans but I think we can learn some good lessons from these studies,” says Metz. “Right now, our population faces a severe mental health crisis and is aging rapidly. Pregnant mothers and elderly are especially vulnerable, and they feel the hit of the pandemic and the effects of social distancing. Given the links between social isolation, stress and health, it is more apparent now than ever to offer social support to vulnerable individuals or marginalized populations.”

The pandemic has significantly impacted our ability to socialize, impacting our mental health. But Metz says the brain is able to heal itself over time.

“I think it really helps us to understand these biological mechanisms because they give us something to work with, variables we can measure,” she says. “We can then see how treatments or interventions are successful and make adjustments where needed to better help people.”

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