Called the brain’s autopilot, the striatum can also trigger compulsive behaviors, such as repeated drug use. Social isolation leaves the striatum in a hypersensitive state, she says, one in which people are more likely to chase a quick reward. The brain can translate loneliness into literal pain, says Wurzman, and that can have disastrous consequences.
“If we don’t have the ability to connect socially, we are so ravenous for our social neurochemistry to be rebalanced, we’re likely to seek relief from anywhere,” she says. “And if that anywhere is opioid painkillers or heroin, it is going to be a heat-seeking missile for our social reward system.”
But Wurzman says she sees hope in the very brain region that can fuel addiction. By connecting with other people over and over again, she says, people with opioid-use disorders can reduce their compulsive behaviors and their chance of relapse or overdose. This change relies on neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to rewire itself when new behaviors are practiced again and again.
Wurzman’s talk is passionate and personal, and reminds viewers not to avoid or stigmatize people who struggle with addiction. Her 18-minute talk necessarily simplifies the biology and the larger physical, psychological and societal issues at hand. Isolation is just one of the many factors that play into addiction — but it’s a problem worth tackling.