There are an estimated 80,000 people, mostly men, in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. They are confined to windowless cells roughly the size of a king bed for 23 hours a day, with virtually no human contact except for brief interactions with prison guards. According to scientists speaking at [Society for Neuroscience conference], this type of social isolation and sensory deprivation can have traumatic effects on the brain, many of which may be irreversible. Neuroscientists, lawyers and activists such as [ex-inmate Robert] King have teamed up with the goal of abolishing solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment.
Chronic stress damages the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory, spatial orientation and emotion regulation. As a result, socially isolated people experience memory loss, cognitive decline and depression. Studies show depression results in additional cell death in the hippocampus as well as the loss of a growth factor that has antidepressant-like properties, creating a vicious cycle. When sensory deprivation and an absence of natural light are thrown into the mix, people can experience psychosis and disruptions in the genes that control the body’s natural circadian rhythms. “Social deprivation is bad for brain structure and function. Sensory deprivation is bad for brain structure and function. Circadian dysregulation is bad,” said Huda Akil, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan who was also on the panel. “Loneliness in itself is extremely damaging.”
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