The lonely brain: evidence from studying patients with penetrating brain injury

Irene Cristofori, Sanya Pal, Wanting Zhong, Barry Gordon, Frank Krueger, Jordan Grafman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Loneliness is perceived as social isolation and exclusion. The neural substrate of loneliness has been investigated with functional neuroimaging; however, lesion-based studies and their associated outcomes are needed to infer causal involvement between brain regions and function. Here, we applied voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping (VLSM) analyses to investigate the causal role of brain lesions on self-report of loneliness (UCLA Loneliness Scale) in a unique sample from the Vietnam Head Injury Study, including veterans with penetrating traumatic brain injuries (pTBI) (n = 132) and healthy controls (HCs) (n = 35). Our results revealed that the right anterior insula (AI) and right prefrontal cortex (PFC) are key brain regions underpinning loneliness perception. Individuals with selective lesions to the right AI and right PFC were less likely to report loneliness compared to patients with selective lesions to the posterior cortex and HCs. Therefore, it appears that lesions to key regions involved in processing social pain act to lower the perception of loneliness. Reporting loneliness was associated with executive dysfunction, apathy, disinhibition, and lower life satisfaction. In conclusion, the reported findings broaden our understanding of how loneliness is processed in the social brain, and how behavioral and cognitive factors can influence this perception.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-675
Number of pages13
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2 2019


  • Loneliness
  • anterior insula
  • brain injury
  • prefrontal cortex
  • social cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Development
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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