Loneliness doesn’t just make people feel isolated. It alters their brain in ways that can hinder their ability to trust and connect to others. In The Neumayer III polar station sits near the edge of Antarctica’s unforgiving Ekström Ice Shelf during the winter, when temperatures can plunge below minus 50 degrees Celsius and the winds can climb to more than 100 kilometers per hour, no one can come or go from the station.
Its isolation is essential to the meteorological, atmospheric and geophysical science experiments conducted there by the mere handful of scientists who staff the station during the winter months and endure its frigid loneliness.
But a few years ago, the station also became the site for a study of loneliness itself. A team of scientists in Germany wanted to see whether the social isolation and environmental monotony marked the brains of people making long Antarctic stays.
Eight expeditioners working at the Neumayer III station for 14 months agreed to have their brains scanned before and after their mission and to have their brain chemistry and cognitive performance monitored during their stay. (A ninth crew member also participated but could not have their brain scanned for medical reasons.)
As the researchers described in 2019, in comparison to a control group, the socially isolated team lost volume in their prefrontal cortex — the region at the front of the brain, just behind the forehead, that is chiefly responsible for decision-making and problem-solving.
They also had lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that nurtures the development and survival of nerve cells in the brain. The reduction persisted for at least a month and a half after the team’s return from Antarctica.
It’s uncertain how much of this was due purely to the social isolation of the experience. But the results are consistent with evidence from more recent studies that chronic loneliness significantly alters the brain in ways that only worsen the problem.
Neuroscience suggests that loneliness doesn’t necessarily result from a lack of opportunity to meet others or a fear of social interactions. Instead, circuits in our brain and changes in our behavior can trap us in a catch-22 situation: While we desire connection with others, we view them as unreliable, judgmental and unfriendly.
Consequently, we keep our distance, consciously or unconsciously spurning potential opportunities for connections. Loneliness can be difficult to study empirically because it is entirely subjective. Social isolation, a related condition, is different — it’s an objective measure of how few relationships a person has.
The experience of loneliness has to be self-reported, although researchers have developed tools such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale to help with assessing the depths of an individual’s feelings. From such work, it’s clear that the physical and psychological toll of loneliness across the globe is profound.
In one survey, 22% of Americans and 23% of British people said they felt lonely always or often. And that was before the pandemic. As of October 2020, 36% of Americans reported “serious loneliness.”
Organizations and governments often attempt to help with loneliness by encouraging people to go out more and by setting up hobby clubs, community gardens and craft groups. Yet as the neuroscience shows, getting rid of loneliness isn’t always that simple.
A Bias Toward Rejection
When neuroscientists from Germany and Israel set out to investigate loneliness a few years ago, they expected to find that its neural underpinnings were like those of social anxiety and involved the amygdala. Often called the fear center of the brain, the amygdala tends to activate when we face things we dread, from snakes to other humans.
“We thought, ‘Social anxiety is associated with increased amygdala activity, so this should also be the case for lonely individuals,’” said Jana Lieberz, a doctoral student at the University of Bonn in Germany who was part of the research team.
Those who suffer from seasonal depression meet the criteria for clinical depression, but they see their symptoms improve with the onset of warmer seasons...Photo Illustration by Chris Fertnig, Getty Images
When he moved from South Africa to New York City, Norman Rosenthal noticed he felt more depressed during the cold, short days of the city’s winters than he had in his home country. “It was an illness hiding in plain sight because people said ‘well that’s how everyone feels in winter.’ They didn’t see it as treatable,” says Rosenthal, a psychiatrist at Georgetown Medical School.
In 1984, he published the first paper to scientifically name the winter blues: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression, was a type of depression brought on by the dark days of winter. Subsequent studies have found that this form of depression varies by geography. As much as three percent of the general population is thought to experience SAD, but one study Rosenthal published in 1990 found that the condition became more prevalent in the U.S. in northern latitudes, with as many as 10 percent of New Hampshire residents reporting the condition.
And, surprisingly, about 10 percent of patients suffering from SAD have symptoms in the summertime instead. Whether in winter or summer, mental health experts say there are solutions to treat SAD.
A bad mood versus a SAD mood
It’s normal for moods to fluctuate with seasons and even for people to feel a little more down in the winter, experts say, but those suffering from SAD experience the symptoms of clinical depression. “They’re exactly the same,” says Kelly Rohan, a psychologist at the University of Vermont who specializes in the disorder.
“We would look for things like a persistently sad mood. Losing interest in things. Sleep changes. Significant eating or appetite change. Losing energy. Fatigue. Difficulty concentrating,” she says. At Yale’s Winter Depression Research Clinic, the most commonly reported symptoms of winter depression are hypersomnia—the desire to sleep more than usual—and an increased appetite, says Paul Desan, a psychiatrist and the clinic’s director.
“It’s like human beings are trying to hibernate,” says Desan. Most people begin experiencing symptoms in young adulthood, but SAD can begin at any stage of life. The condition also varies by sex. “About three times as many women as men get SAD for reasons we don’t understand,” says Desan…..Continue reading
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder subset, in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, commonly but not always in the wintertime, with reduced sunlight.Common symptoms include sleeping too much, having little to no energy, and overeating.The condition in the summer can include heightened anxiety.
Although experts were initially skeptical, this condition is now recognized as a common disorder. However, the validity of SAD has been questioned by a 2016 analysis by the Center for Disease Control, in which no links were detected between depression and seasonality or sunlight exposure.
A chill is in the air, and you all know what that means — it’s time for cold and flu season, when it seems everyone you know is suddenly sneezing, sniffling or worse. It’s almost as if those pesky cold and flu germs whirl in with the first blast of winter weather.
As respiratory viruses strain US health care systems, Biden administration tells states how it’s ready to help. Yet germs are present year-round — just think back to your last summer cold. So why do people get more colds, flu and now Covid-19 when it’s chilly outside?
In what researchers are calling a scientific breakthrough, scientists behind a new study may have found the biological reason we get more respiratory illnesses in winter. It turns out the cold air itself damages the immune response occurring in the nose.
“This is the first time that we have a biologic, molecular explanation regarding one factor of our innate immune response that appears to be limited by colder temperatures,” said rhinologist Dr. Zara Patel, a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. She was not involved in the new study.
In fact, reducing the temperature inside the nose by as little as 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) kills nearly 50% of the billions of virus and bacteria-fighting cells in the nostrils, according to the study published Tuesday in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
“Cold air is associated with increased viral infection because you’ve essentially lost half of your immunity just by that small drop in temperature,” said rhinologist Dr. Benjamin Bleier, director of otolaryngology translational research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
“it’s important to remember that these are in vitro studies, meaning that although it is using human tissue in the lab to study this immune response, it is not a study being carried out inside someone’s actual nose,” Patel said in an email. “Often the findings of in vitro studies are confirmed in vivo, but not always.”
A hornet’s nest
To understand why this occurs, Bleier and his team and coauthor Mansoor Amiji, who chairs the department of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, went on a scientific detective hunt.
Here’s how to know when your child is too sick for school. A respiratory virus or bacteria invades the nose, the main point of entry into the body. Immediately, the front of the nose detects the germ, well before the back of the nose is aware of the intruder, the team discovered.
At that point, cells lining the nose immediately begin creating billions of simple copies of themselves called extracellular vesicles, or EV’s.“EV’s can’t divide like cells can, but they are like little mini versions of cells specifically designed to go and kill these viruses,” Bleier said. “EV’s act as decoys, so now when you inhale a virus, the virus sticks to these decoys instead of sticking to the cells.”
Those “Mini Me’s” are then expelled by the cells into nasal mucus (yes, snot), where they stop invading germs before they can get to their destinations and multiply. “This is one of, if not the only part of the immune system that leaves your body to go fight the bacteria and viruses before they actually get into your body,” Bleier said.
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Once created and dispersed out into nasal secretions, the billions of EV’s then start to swarm the marauding germs, Bleier said.
“It’s like if you kick a hornet’s nest, what happens? You might see a few hornets flying around, but when you kick it, all of them all fly out of the nest to attack before that animal can get into the nest itself,” he said. “That’s the way the body mops up these inhaled viruses so they can never get into the cell in the first place.”
A big increase in immune power
When under attack, the nose increases production of extracellular vesicles by 160%, the study found. There were additional differences: EV’s had many more receptors on their surface than original cells, thus boosting the virus-stopping ability of the billions of extracellular vesicles in the nose.
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“Just imagine receptors as little arms that are sticking out, trying to grab on to the viral particles as you breathe them in,” Bleier said. “And we found each vesicle has up to 20 times more receptors on the surface, making them super sticky.”
Cells in the body also contain a viral killer called micro RNA, which attack invading germs. Yet EVs in the nose contained 13 times micro RNA sequences than normal cells, the study found. So the nose comes to battle armed with some extra superpowers. But what happens to those advantages when cold weather hits?
To find out, Bleier and his team exposed four study participants to 15 minutes of 40-degree-Fahrenheit (4.4-degree-Celsius) temperatures, and then measured conditions inside their nasal cavities.
“What we found is that when you’re exposed to cold air, the temperature in your nose can drop by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit. And that’s enough to essentially knock out all three of those immune advantages that the nose has,” Bleier said.
It seems like everyone’s getting sick this winter. Parents and health care workers, how are you coping? In fact, that little bit of coldness in the tip of the nose was enough to take nearly 42% of the extracellular vesicles out of the fight, Bleier said.
“Similarly, you have almost half the amount of those killer micro RNA’s inside each vesicle, and you can have up to a 70% drop in the number of receptors on each vesicle, making them much less sticky,” he said.
What does that do to your ability to fight off colds, flu and Covid-19? It cuts your immune system’s ability to fight off respiratory infections by half, Bleier said.
You don’t have to wear a nose sock
As it turns out, the pandemic gave us exactly what we need to help fight off chilly air and keep our immunity high, Bleier said. Wearing a mask can protect you from cold air that can reduce your immunity, an expert says.
“Not only do masks prrhinologist Dr. Benjamin Bleierotect you from the direct inhalation of viruses, but it’s also like wearing a sweater on your nose,” he said. Patel agreed: “The warmer you can keep the intranasal environment, the better this innate immune defense mechanism will be able to work. Maybe yet another reason to wear masks!”
In the future, Bleier expects to see the development of topical nasal medications that build upon this scientific revelation. These new pharmaceuticals will “essentially fool the nose into thinking it has just seen a virus,” he said. “By having that exposure, you’ll have all these extra hornets flying around in your mucous protecting you,” he added.
New Zealand’s glaciers are becoming “smaller and more skeletal” due to the effects of climate change and scientists predict many could disappear within a decade.
An annual end-of-summer survey that records the snowline of more than 50 South Island glaciers has revealed continued loss of snow and ice.
Every year, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), the Victoria University of Wellington and the conservation department gather thousands of aerial photographs of the glaciers to measure the altitude of the snowline and see how much of the previous winter’s snow has remained covering each glacier.
That snowline, also known as the equilibrium line altitude (ELA), allows scientists to evaluate the glacier’s health. If the glacier size has decreased, then the line will be higher, because less winter snow remains.
“We were expecting the snowlines to be high because of the warm weather we’ve had and sadly, our instincts were confirmed,” said Dr Andrew Lorrey, a principal scientist at Niwa.
New Zealand’s glaciers had lost mass most years over the past decade, said Dr Lauren Vargo from Victoria University. “But what was more striking to me is how much smaller and more skeletal so many of the glaciers are becoming.”
The country is experiencing more frequent temperature extremes, four to five times more extreme than would be expected in a climate with no long-term warming, Niwa reported in January, while 2021 was New Zealand’s hottest year on record.
Last week, Antarctica recorded temperatures more than 40C warmer than seasonal norms. Gregor Macara, a Niwa climate scientist, said this year’s survey showed a noticeable difference from the previous years.
“The snowline elevations this year were high, meaning much of the winter snows had melted, leaving a lot of glacial ice exposed. It appears to be yet another poor year for our ice, continuing the trend from recent years, and it is disheartening to see the ongoing decline.”
The long-term aerial survey began in 1977, giving a visual timeline of how much glaciers have retreated. Since the survey began, the global climate has warmed by about 1.1C and Niwa estimates that more than a third of the ice volume has been lost from the Southern Alps.
“What we’re seeing is a clear retreat, which is no doubt thanks to climate change. In a decade, we predict that many of our beloved and important glaciers will be gone,” Lorrey said.
The ramifications are significant. Glaciers are an important store of fresh water, their seasonal melt into rivers supporting irrigation of farmland and hydropower schemes, and acting as a buffer against drought. The disappearing ice also contributes to rising sea levels.
“This will have far reaching impacts, such as altering our beautiful landscape, affecting the livelihoods of people who rely on these natural wonders for tourism, and flow on effects from decreased meltwater during periods of drought,” Lorrey said.
“It also emphasises the urgency of slowing climate change because the impacts are going to become increasingly costly and hard to avoid.”
The coldest continent on Earth used to be as warm as Italy. Here’s how we know. Not far from the South Pole, more than half a mile below the ocean in a region that was once covered by ice, a layer of ancient fossils tells a surprising story about the coldest continent on Earth.
Today, the South Pole records average winter temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. But roughly 90 million years ago, the fossils suggest, Antarctica was as warm as Italy and covered by a green expanse of rainforest.
“That was an exciting time for Antarctica,” Johann P. Klages, a marine geologist who helped unearth the fossils, told Vox. “It was basically the last time the whole continent was covered by vegetation and probably also wildlife — dinosaurs, and all that.”
Intrepid polar scientists like Klages, who works at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, are revealing new sides of the Antarctica we know today. In the April 2020 issue of the journal Nature, he and 39 colleagues described networks of fossilized tree roots that they pulled up from the seafloor in 2017. They’re a sign of just how much the polar climate has changed since the “supergreenhouse” of the Cretaceous period — and perhaps how much the climate could change again.
Even since that paper, the Antarctic surprises have kept coming. In October, a Brazilian research team announced that it found 75-million-year-old pieces of charcoal on James Ross Island, hundreds of miles south of South America. In the journal Polar Research, the researchers concluded that “paleofires,” which were common in the rest of the prehistoric world, also scorched the Antarctic Peninsula. “That’s exciting work,” Klages said. “It’s the first evidence for these wildfires.”
As climate change warms Antarctica and shrinks its enormous ice sheet, many scientists are wondering whether history could repeat itself. But relatively few research teams have the tools to work in a place where Titanic-sized icebergs pepper the ocean. I sat down with Klages at the Falling Walls Science Summit in Berlin to talk about how his team conducted research from the RV Polarstern, a research icebreaker that translates “North Star” and regularly carries around 50 scientists and 50 crew members to the Arctic and Antarctic.
He told me about the place where his team drilled into the seafloor — an area where geology somehow brought layers of 90-million-year-old sediment, or “strata,” within reach of their enormous and powerful drill. The layers, he said, are like the pages in a book. “You walk along the pages; you walk along history,” he said. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
This particular cruise was exciting because we tried this special seafloor drill rig for the first time. It’s huge. It’s almost 10 tons. It needs seven 20-foot containers of equipment to be shipped. There are only two of them available on the planet right now. They were developed and built in Bremen, Germany, at the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM).
For this drill rig, you need special conditions. It sits on the seafloor and it’s connected with a long cable, in this case about 1,000 meters, for power supply and a glass fiber cable that ensures the communication. We have [eight] HD cameras that are observing each step. We the scientists are standing behind the technicians, because they are the specialists, in the communication container with all the screens that show you what’s going on.
It must look like a cockpit of an airplane.
Yeah, or like in Houston when rockets go up. It’s very exciting. We know, when we drill, that no one has seen this material before.
It’s also extremely exciting because sea ice drifting toward the ship would be the end of the cable. Canceling the drill takes five to six hours. Therefore, we have a joint collaboration with the German aerospace center, and every day we get high-resolution imagery of the particular location where we drill. Then we have two helicopters on board. We fly around the ship to make sure there is no sea ice.
You need around 30 to 50 hours of operation time on one particular location. So for this time window, you have to make sure that everything runs relatively smoothly.
We had to drill through 25 meters [82 feet] of sandstone, which is always the worst to drill, especially when there’s water involved, because it crumbles and falls apart. It’s really annoying. The drilling crew wanted to cancel the drill because of the sandstone and because ice was coming. We had to decide. I think the ice was eight or nine hours away.
Can you tell me a little bit about the 2017 voyage itself?
All Antarctic expeditions I’ve been a part of are extremely exciting because everywhere you go, usually, it’s for the first time. It’s like this white spot on the map. Every time we go there we discover new things.
Polarstern is one of the largest research icebreakers in the world — it can break through thick ice. That makes it possible to reach locations that are usually not reachable for other ships. In the Northern Hemisphere summer, it’s usually in the Arctic, and in the Southern Hemisphere summer, it’s usually in the Antarctic.
Why did you drill there?
Because during past expeditions, with geophysical methods looking deep into the seafloor, we saw that the geological strata were kind of tilted.
And that signals just how old it is.
Exactly. If you have tilted strata, some kind of bigger tectonic process brought it up. Then the ice eroded into it, so that these strata are so close to the surface — just a few meters below the surface.
Is the drill sort of like a straw, in that it holds the sediment in place as it drills down?
Yeah, you have an inner and outer barrel. At the bottom, you have a diamond drill head.
The seafloor drill rig has two magazines in it — one with empty barrels and one with filled barrels. You pull out the inner barrel every 3.5 meters. We then go and get the material from the technicians. That was the first moment we realized we have something very special because it had a color that we never saw before in Antarctica. Very dark brown, and very fine-grained.
At the surface, every once in a while, you could see these black spots. We were all wondering, what are these black spots about? Must be something organic.
We decided to drill one more section, which means 3.5 meters, and then go away. And in those 3.5 meters, there were those exciting strata. If we hadn’t, there would have been nothing exciting, really. That made the difference.
It’s always a combination of knowledge and good conditions, but then there are two more things: luck and intuition. If you don’t follow them, you shouldn’t go there in the first place.
We came home. The cores came home a couple of weeks later, shipped home on Polarstern. Then we decided to go to a hospital we have a collaboration with that has these human computed tomography (CT) scanners. When we first saw the CT data, that was the moment we realized we have something very special. It was this interconnected network of fossil roots.
Was there evidence of plant life in Antartica before you came along?
Yes, but all of that evidence is 1,000 to 1,500 kilometers [about 600 to 900 miles] farther north. There was no evidence from near the South Pole. We reconstructed this environment only 900 kilometers away from the South Pole.
No one really knew what the climate was like during the “supergreenhouse” period near the South Pole. But this is actually what you need when you want to know the severity of a particular climate in Earth’s past. [The poles are currently warming much more quickly than the rest of the planet, and as polar ice melts, global warming accelerates.] This is what we could reveal with this study.
The problem in Antarctica is, right now, is the ice sheet. The particular site where we drilled was covered by grounded ice for millions of years, but since we are in an interglacial period right now, the ice retreated to a point that it just made it possible to get to it and drill into it.
Could you describe what was happening in the atmosphere at the time that could have created these conditions?
That was the final question we asked ourselves. Such a diverse environment with such mild temperatures — temperatures that today you have in northern Italy, for example. What is necessary to maintain that for a long stretch of time 90 million years ago?
Therefore, we invited some climate modelers into our team. They came up with [a carbon dioxide concentration of] at least 1,100 parts per million CO2, which is four times preindustrial [the CO2 concentration before the Industrial Revolution]. This was needed, at least, to meet the conditions we reconstructed.
We knew this period was the warmest in the last 145 million years. Now we had much better numbers on the CO2 content.
The model still has a problem: It can’t really simulate well enough the gradient between lower latitudes and high latitudes. We now know that the gradient was very shallow.
So it’s likely that the climate was hotter but more even at the time.
Yeah! This is something that models can’t do right now properly — to simulate this gradient. So there is a bug with the modeling.
This is now what brings it to the significance for the future of the climate, if we drift into a high-CO2 future. We are doing that right now. We are 420 parts per million CO2, something around that. If we go to this high-CO2 future, we know that models struggle. This is a chance to use moments in Earth’s past to calibrate those models, to improve their predictive capabilities for tomorrow.
And the predictions your colleagues are starting to make suggest that it’s very concerning — but the presence of the ice sheet itself could protect us?
Yes. We are quite lucky now that we have ice, and that two big areas of our planet are covered by permanent ice mass: Greenland and Antarctica. You have this self-cooling process. You have a gigantic mirror that sends short-wave radiation that comes in, back into space. If this is gone, this is transformed into heat.
This is something that we should not take for granted. Ice is vanishing. Every year we go there, we see. [We think] “Oh my gosh — it’s really going quickly now.” The rapid changes going on are unprecedented, as far as we know so far from the geological past.
We are doing a big experiment right now. We take fossil fuels from the Earth’s crust that were deposited over millions of years, and usually would have been released back to the atmosphere over millions of years — but we did it within 150 years. Boom. That has never happened before. That has a massive impact.
This is something we need to incorporate when we talk about the future — to start learning what the planet already went through in its history. It’s the only chance we have. It’s not about environmental protection — it’s about human protection. It’s about us.
When you set out to become a marine geologist, did you ever think you’d end up researching something so pressing — the future of our climate?
No. You drift into things. I was just fascinated by the planet and by its history. We are lucky to be part of it. But this particular discovery — if someone would have told me the story like three years ago, I would have laughed. I never thought it would have such an impact.
Correction, December 6, 11:30 am: Klages told Vox after publication that his team used eight HD cameras to monitor the drill rig on the RV Polarstern, not 20.
Correction, December 7, 10:30 am: A previous version of this story misnamed the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences.