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Lonely? It's a gene conspiracy

September 15, 2007|From Reuters

Lonely people are more likely to get sick and die young, and researchers say they may have found out why: Their immune systems have gone haywire.

Scientists used a "gene chip" to look at the DNA of isolated people and found that people who described themselves as chronically lonely have distinct patterns of genetic activity involving the immune system.

The study does not show which came first -- the loneliness or the physical traits. But it suggests that there may be a way to help prevent the deadly effects of loneliness, said UCLA molecular biologist Steve Cole, who worked on the study published in the current issue of Genome Biology.

Cole and University of Chicago psychology professor John Cacioppo's team studied 14 volunteers -- six of whom scored in the top 15% on a loneliness scale.

The team took blood and studied the gene activity of immune system cells -- the white blood cells that protect from invaders such as viruses and bacteria.

All 22,000 human genes were studied and compared, and 209 stood out in the loneliest people. "These 200 genes weren't sort of a random mishmash of genes. They were part of a highly suspicious conspiracy of genes. A big fraction of them seemed to be involved in the basic immune response to tissue damage," Cole said.

Others were involved in the production of antibodies -- the tag the body uses to mark microbes or damaged cells for removal, Cole said.

The findings suggest that the loneliest people had high levels of chronic inflammation, which has been associated with heart and artery disease, arthritis, Alzheimer's and other illnesses.

The next step is to see if this might be treated, possibly with aspirin, Cole said. The anti- inflammatory drug is also a blood thinner often taken to prevent heart attacks and stroke.

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