An online game called cyberball is helping researchers look at the effects of social isolation on health. At UCLA, researchers look at the brains of participants while they play cyberball to determine what goes on in the brain when someone feels rejection and isolation. So what exactly is cyberball?

In the UCLA study, a participant who is being tested (we’ll call her Sam) is told she will be playing a virtual ball-tossing game with two other individuals who are in other rooms. In reality, the two other players are virtual players whose actions are being controlled by a computer program. Sam is positioned in a functional MRI (fMRI) to monitor her brain activity as she plays the game. She views a computerized screen of the game through special fMRI goggles. Cartoon images representing the other players are displayed in the upper left- and right-hand corners of the screen with fictional names of the players displayed below. Sam is represented by a cartoon hand, located in the bottom-center position of the screen with her name displayed below the hand.

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One of the virtual players starts the game by throwing the ball to either the other virtual player or Sam. After catching the ball, Sam can throw it to either of the two other players by selecting one of two keys on a button box. The game uses random time delays before the virtual players throw, to make it seem more like it is real people playing with Sam. 

Initially, Sam receives several passes of the ball over the first minute, but then she is excluded, and no one throws her the ball for the remainder of the game – up to 2 minutes. 

A simple, quick experiment [1], but the MRIs of study participants like Sam during the game, show that the area of physical pain in the brain lights up when the ball is no longer tossed to them. Also, genes involved in protecting us against bacteria and viruses are switched off, and inflammation genes are switched on. These brain changes are seen to correspond with increased levels of biomarkers of inflammation (IL-6 and TNF-α) in the blood.

This cyberball game is just a single, brief incidence of isolation, yet it is seen to impact an individual’s susceptibility to infection and lead to inflammation (inflammation can be a driver of many chronic diseases, including cancer). 

If this effect is seen after a three minute game, imagine what the effect of feeling isolated for months or years has on someone’s health.  I’ll discuss the long term effects of social isolation in next week’s blog – but for this week, let’s all have a goal to reach out to someone. If you are lonely – reach out and try to connect with someone. If you already have friends and family who support you – reach out to someone else who may need a friend. Remember, loneliness and isolation doesn’t just happen to people who live alone. Let’s show that community is medicine.

[1] ResearchBlogging.org
Slavich, G., Way, B., Eisenberger, N., & Taylor, S. (2010). Neural sensitivity to social rejection is associated with inflammatory responses to social stress Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (33), 14817-14822 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1009164107

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