Chronic social isolation signals starvation and reduces sleep in Drosophila

Nature. 2021 Sep;597(7875):239-244. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03837-0. Epub 2021 Aug 18.


Social isolation and loneliness have potent effects on public health1-4. Research in social psychology suggests that compromised sleep quality is a key factor that links persistent loneliness to adverse health conditions5,6. Although experimental manipulations have been widely applied to studying the control of sleep and wakefulness in animal models, how normal sleep is perturbed by social isolation is unknown. Here we report that chronic, but not acute, social isolation reduces sleep in Drosophila. We use quantitative behavioural analysis and transcriptome profiling to differentiate between brain states associated with acute and chronic social isolation. Although the flies had uninterrupted access to food, chronic social isolation altered the expression of metabolic genes and induced a brain state that signals starvation. Chronically isolated animals exhibit sleep loss accompanied by overconsumption of food, which resonates with anecdotal findings of loneliness-associated hyperphagia in humans. Chronic social isolation reduces sleep and promotes feeding through neural activities in the peptidergic fan-shaped body columnar neurons of the fly. Artificial activation of these neurons causes misperception of acute social isolation as chronic social isolation and thereby results in sleep loss and increased feeding. These results present a mechanistic link between chronic social isolation, metabolism, and sleep, addressing a long-standing call for animal models focused on loneliness7.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / cytology
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Drosophila melanogaster / cytology
  • Drosophila melanogaster / genetics
  • Drosophila melanogaster / metabolism*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Female
  • Hunger
  • Hyperphagia / genetics
  • Loneliness
  • Male
  • Models, Animal*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Sleep Deprivation / genetics
  • Sleep Deprivation / metabolism
  • Sleep* / genetics
  • Social Isolation*
  • Starvation / genetics
  • Starvation / metabolism*
  • Time Factors
  • Transcriptome