Some teenagers’ brains have been aging faster during the pandemic
some teenagers’ brains grew faster
Reports of anxiety and depression in adults increased by more than 25 percent in 2020, and some new research suggests that mental health and the neurological effects of the pandemic on adolescents could be even worse than in their adult counterparts.
Scientists are starting to examine how the past two-and-a half years of pandemics have affected the brains and minds of teens. A new study published today in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, suggests that stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic have physically changed teen brains, causing their brain structures to appear multiple years older than the brains of comparable peers before the pandemic.
” We know from global research that this pandemic has adversely impacted mental health in youth, but what, if any, it was doing to their brains?” said Ian Gotlib (study author, psychology professor at Stanford University’s School of Humanities & Sciences in a statement .
Changes in brain structure occur naturally as we age. During early teenage years and in puberty, the hippocampus (which controls access to certain memories) and the amygdala (which helps moderate emotions), go through growth spurts like the rest of the body. The tissues in the cortex, which controls executive functioning, becomes thinner at the same time.
To get a closer look, Gotlib and his team compared the MRI scans of 163 children that were taken before and during the pandemic. The study showed that during the COVID-19 lockdowns, this developmental process in the brain sped up in adolescents. According to Gotlib, an accelerated change in “brain age” has typically appeared only in children and adolescents who have experienced chronic adversity (family neglect, violence, family dysfunction, etc.). These kinds of early adverse experiences can be linked to worse mental health outcomes later in life.
However, it is not clear if the changes in brain structure observed in this study will be related to changes in mental health later in life.
“It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” said Gotlib. “Will their chronological ages eventually catch up with their ‘brain ages’?” It’s not clear what the future holds if their brain is permanently older than their chronological years. 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?”
The results of this study could have implications on some of the longitudinal studies that were conducted over the course of the pandemic. For any future research involving this generation, scientists will need to account for abnormal brain growth rates if people who have experienced the pandemic experience this rapid brain change.
“The pandemic is a global phenomenon–there’s no one who hasn’t experienced it,” said Gotlib. “There is no real control group .”
Coauthor Jonas Miller, a professor of psychological sciences at Yale University, said that such results could have serious implications for the future of this generation.
“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,” Miller said. “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.”
Gotlib will continue to follow the same group of teens through their adolescence and young adulthood to determine if the pandemic affected brain development over time. He also plans to compare the brain structures of those who were infected with COVID-19 and those who weren’t infected with the virus, with the goal of identifying any differences in the brain potentially caused by infection.