Dr Stephanie Cacioppo knows about loneliness.
She's spent much of her career as a neuroscientist and loneliness.
Dr. John Cacioppo, passed away. She has spent the last nine months living, feeling the void in her life since her late husband and research partner.
Loneliness and isolation are shared by Cacioppo and countless other Americans, and scientists believe it's a condition that hinders not only our happiness but our health.
The culmination of Dr Cacioppo's work, however, might be a treatment for loneliness – a pill that can soothe the brain activity that makes us feel like that anguish in isolation.
As a loneliness epidemic raises hazards of dementia, diabetes and even death
Heartsickness may not be a literal illness, but loneliness has been dubbed an epidemic.
Nearly half of Americans say they are lonely some or all of the time.
Humans are social creatures, and the isolation we feel emotionally also causes changes to the brain and body.
Lonely people are more likely to develop diabetes and dementia, take up destructive activities like smoking and drinking.
The connection to dementia has been explored perhaps more than any other clinical link to loneliness. Changes in the brain linked to isolation are thought to cause inflammation.
Loneliness takes a toll on the heart, too – the so-called broken heart effect. 66% increased risk of death for a widow or widower in the first three months after losing a spouse.
Dr. John Cacioppo, a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, threw herself into challenging workouts, running hard and fast to feel to her own health.
She is a scientist and she is a scientist.
Dr. Cacioppo's most promising answer, so far, is surprisingly straightforward: pregnenolone, a steroid that our bodies already naturally make.
Pregnenolone is a key to the production of many hormones, including both estrogen and progesterone, and even the stress hormone, cortisol.
He has been involved in these processes, he has drawn the attention of the anti-aging researchers and those who study isolation – like Dr Cacioppo – alike.
Behaviors, emotions and tendencies of loneliness are part of a primal response to a threat.
This response is steered by two regions of the brain – the amygdala and the insula – that tell the body to be alert.
University of Michigan researchers gave a small study to a derivative of pregnenolone and saw that the activity in their amygdalas and insulas was quelled, compared to the activity of the brains in the placebo group.
John Cacioppo (left) and Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo were not only husband and wife but research partners working on a loneliness drug before
The participants said they felt less anxious, too.
Though loneliness and anxiety, these are the same brain systems – those associated with hyper-vigilance.
Dr. Cacioppo just completed a clinical trial in June, 400 mg of pregnenolone or a placebo, and studying their brain activity.
Cacioppo and her late husband undertook together.
In the meantime, pregnenolone is actually commercially available, touted mostly as an anti-aging and pro-memory supplement and sold for about $ 17 and $ 40.
It exists in a bit of regulatory at the moment.
It is an acceptable (though not approved) supplement if it is an extract of the steroid – taken from an animal. Currently, pregnenolone is not on the FDA's list of prohibiting blood-doping agents.
But forms made in the lab, or synthetic, are considered unapproved drugs, and the FDA has warned at least one pharmacy that can not use pregnenolone in compounds.
Determining whether the stuff is legal or not
Most varieties are sold as pregnenolone, listing the steroid as the only active ingredient. Should be labeled as a variation of the word – but there is no guarantee that that label is accurate.
Of course, even if Dr Cacioppo 's trial is a wild success, pregnenolone – synthetic, extracted or otherwise – will not be a cure for loneliness.
But in an age where it is constantly connected, it is paradoxically, making us feel more socially isolated, pregnenolone might nudge our brains to little less, put down our phones, and be a little less alone.