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Perceived loneliness, an increasingly prevalent social issue, is closely associated with major depressive disorder (MDD). However, the neural mechanisms previously implicated in key cognitive and affective processes in loneliness and MDD still remain unclear. Such understanding is critical for delineating the psychobiological basis of the relationship between loneliness and MDD.
We isolated the unique and interactive cognitive and neural substrates of loneliness and MDD among 27 MDD patients (mean age = 51.85 years, 20 females), and 25 matched healthy controls (HCs; mean age = 48.72 years, 19 females). We assessed participants' behavioral performance and neural regional and network functions on a Stroop color-word task, and their resting-state neural connectivity.
Behaviorally, we found greater incongruence-related accuracy cost in MDD patients, but reduced incongruence effect on reaction time in lonelier individuals. When performing the Stroop task, loneliness positively predicted prefrontal-anterior cingulate-parietal connectivity across all participants, whereas MDD patients showed a decrease in connectivity compared to controls. Furthermore, loneliness negatively predicted parietal and cerebellar activities in MDD patients, but positively predicted the same activities in HCs. During resting state, MDD patients showed reduced parietal-anterior cingulate connectivity, which again positively correlated with loneliness in this group.
We speculate the distinct neurocognitive profile of loneliness might indicate increase in both bottom-up attention and top-down executive control functions. However, the upregulated cognitive control processes in lonely individuals may eventually become exhausted, which may in turn predispose to MDD onset.
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