Dr Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago Prizker School of Medicine, puts loneliness in the same category as thirst: a human signal that can be dealt with through our actions. Just as we reach for a drink when we are thirsty or dehydrated, we might be able to take a pill to deal with the consequences of feeling lonely in the future. "Like thirst, loneliness is a biological signal that has evolved to protect our survival," she says.
Her aim, she says, is to reduce the alarm signals in the brain that can result from people feeling lonely to make them better equipped to reach outwards, rather than falling inwards into social isolation. "The goal is not to eliminate loneliness [or thirst]. The goal is to help prevent people from feeling lonely [or thirsty for the analogy]," she says.
Dr Cacioppo is leading a team developing a "loneliness pill" that she hopes will help relieve the more severe symptoms suffered by the acutely lonely. "Loneliness is widespread and contagious. It is an epidemic," she says. Dr Cacioppo stresses her goal is not to stop loneliness, but rather to regulate the ways that feeling lonely affects the mind and body. She says loneliness results from signals to the brain that perceive danger all around us and push us to interact in ways that will cause greater anxiety to ourselves and others. This is where Dr Caccioppo thinks a loneliness pill could help.