Could a pill make you less lonely?

Researchers in the U.S. are working on a pill for loneliness, a condition increasingly considered an epidemic, while some experts suggest the state shouldn’t be treated with drugs.

The pill would provide a dose of pregnenolone, a naturally occurring hormone that has been associated with stress reduction. Scientists at the University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory administered the hormone to test subjects during a recent study, building off research that suggested the normalization of pregnenolone in isolated lab rats decreased the stress response.

The lead neuroscientist at the lab has said that the research is not meant to “cure” loneliness but to help reduce fear in lonely people.

“A lonely mind lies to you all the time,” Stephanie Cacioppo told Smithsonian Magazine in February. “It’s like when you’re driving in the winter and the visibility is really bad. The idea is that a pill could defrost the windshield for you, and finally you see things as they are, rather than being afraid of everyone. You become more open to listening to others.”

Rates of Canadians living alone has more than doubled, reports from Statistics Canada show. The physical and mental consequences of loneliness have been well documented in research. Loneliness and isolation make a person more likely to die sooner, according to a 2015 study. Some research has suggested that the state is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, while others have found it decreases immune system function and worsens sleep quality.

Some have taken issue with the idea of a “pill for loneliness,” such as cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti, author of A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion.

“Loneliness is not one thing. It’s lots of different emotional states. Sometimes it is linked to depression, but not always,” she told CTV News Channel on Tuesday. While depression is often treated with medication, she said loneliness shouldn’t be treated that way.

“Sometimes when loneliness is chronic and it’s linked to very severe mental and physical health problems it needs to be addressed in a very medicalized way. But most of the time, loneliness is a life stage that we move through,” she said, calling it a “pinch point of experience.” Historically, loneliness has been proven to have benefits, she added, such as being linked to creativity.

It’s more vital for lonely people to think about what community means, she said. What inspires them, what fills them with passion.

“We’re so focused on individualism,” she said. “We’re focused on personal achievements and competition. We need to think much more about what it feels like to belong and what different kinds of groups we could belong to.”

The lead scientist at the Chicago lab has agreed that the pill is not a catch-all solution.

“We think about this medication as an adjunct therapy to go along with exercises that you can practice every day when you interact with others,” she told the Smithsonian Magazine. “Because the fight with loneliness is a daily fight.”

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