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How pandemic stress altered teenage brains

Teens brain structures appear several years older than the brains of comparable peers before COVID-19 came along.

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Upset and depressed girl holding smartphone sitting on college campus floor holding head. University sad student suffering from depression sitting on floor at high school. Lonely bullied teen.
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By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has aged teenagers' brains, reveals new research.

Researchers found that pandemic-related stressors have physically altered adolescents’ brains, making their brain structures appear several years older than the brains of comparable peers before COVID-19 came along.

In 2020 alone, reports of anxiety and depression in adults rose by more than 25 percent compared to previous years.

The new findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, indicate that the neurological and mental health effects of the pandemic on teenagers may have been even worse.

Study first author Professor Ian Gotlib, of Stanford University in the United States, said: “We already know from global research that the pandemic has adversely affected mental health in youth, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was doing physically to their brains."

He explained that changes in brain structure occur naturally as we age.

During puberty and early teenage years, youngsters' bodies experience increased growth in both the hippocampus and the amygdala, areas of the brain that control access to certain memories and help to modulate emotions.

At the same time, tissues in the cortex - an area involved in "executive functioning" - become thinner.

By comparing MRI scans from a group of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic, Gotlib’s study showed that the developmental process sped up in teenagers as they experienced COVID-19 lockdowns.

He said that, until now, such accelerated changes in “brain age” have appeared only in children who have experienced "chronic adversity" - such as violence or neglect.

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Gotlib said that although those experiences are linked to poor mental health outcomes later in life, it’s unclear whether the changes in brain structure that his team observed are linked to changes in mental health.

He said: “It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent.

“Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’? If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it’s unclear what the outcomes will be in the future.

"For a 70- or 80-year-old, you’d expect some cognitive and memory problems based on changes in the brain, but what does it mean for a 16-year-old if their brains are aging prematurely?”

Originally, Gotlib explained, his study was not designed to look at the impact of Covid-19 on brain structure.

Before the pandemic, his lab had recruited a group of children and adolescents from around the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a long-term study on depression during puberty.

But when the pandemic hit, he could not conduct regularly-scheduled MRI scans on the participants.

Gotlib said: “Then, nine months later, we had a hard restart."

Once he could continue brain scans, the study was a year behind schedule.

Gotlib explained that, under normal circumstances, it would be possible to statistically correct for the delay while analyzing the study’s data – but the pandemic was far from a normal event.

He said: “That technique only works if you assume the brains of 16-year-olds today are the same as the brains of 16-year-olds before the pandemic with respect to cortical thickness and hippocampal and amygdala volume.

High school student taking notes while wearing face mask due to coronavirus emergency. Young woman sitting in class with their classmates and wearing surgical mask due to Covid-19 pandemic.
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

“After looking at our data, we realized that they’re not.

"Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns not only had more severe internalizing mental health problems, but also had reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age.”

Gotlib said the findings could have "major implications" for other studies that have spanned the pandemic.

If youngsters who experienced the pandemic show accelerated development in their brains, scientists will have to account for that "abnormal" rate of growth in any future research involving this generation.

He added: “The pandemic is a global phenomenon - there’s no-one who hasn’t experienced it. There’s no real control group.”

Co-author Dr. Jonas Miller, said the findings might also have "serious consequences" for an entire generation of adolescents later in life,

Dr. Miller, now an Assistant Professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, added: “Adolescence is already a period of rapid reorganization in the brain, and it’s already linked to increased rates of mental health problems, depression, and risk-taking behavior.

“Now you have this global event that’s happening, where everyone is experiencing some kind of adversity in the form of disruption to their daily routines – so it might be the case that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today are not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago.”

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