Pandemic stress is aging teenage brains faster

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only resulted in poorer mental health in adolescents, but also in the physical aging of their brains.

That’s according to new research from a team at Stanford University in the United States, published on Thursday in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry published: Global Open Science.

Always more research results show that the pandemic has severely impacted the mental health of young people around the world. School closures in particular have affected the emotional well-being of children and young people.

However, the new findings suggest that the stressors caused by the pandemic have not only affected the mental health of the young people. Their brains have also physically changed, making their brain structures appear several years older than comparable pre-pandemic peers.

The researchers compared the MRI scans of 81 teens taken before the pandemic to those of 82 teens taken in the San Francisco Bay Area between October 2020 and March 2022 — during the pandemic but after lockdowns were lifted where all the teenagers came from.

From these, they matched 64 participants in each group for factors such as age and gender.

They found that the adolescents studied after the lockdown, compared to the adolescents studied before the pandemic, not only had more severe internalizing mental health problems, but also reduced cortical thickness, greater hippocampal and amygdala volume, and older brain age had. Their brains had aged prematurely.

After the lockdown, the young people showed neuroanatomical features that are more typical of older people or those who had had stressful experiences in childhood.

“Their brains had changed”

Originally, the team did not want to study how the pandemic affects the brain structures of young people.

The children in the study were actually part of a larger test group for a long-term study of depression during puberty.

But then COVID-19 struck, and researchers couldn’t perform their regularly scheduled MRI scans.

Once they were able to resume the brain scans, they realized they couldn’t just pick up where they left off.

“We had this big gap now,” Ian Gotlib, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study, told Euronews.

“We were able to figure out how to statistically control for this gap… But that assumes the kids are the same now as the kids were before the pandemic. And we weren’t sure if that was the case.”

“We already knew that these children had higher rates of depression, anxiety and sadness after the lockdowns,” he said.

“But what we didn’t know was if their brains had changed. And their brains had changed.”

According to the researchers, such accelerated changes in “brain age” have so far only occurred in children who have experienced violence, neglect or family dysfunction.

“We don’t yet know much about what these brain changes mean or how permanent they might be in the adolescents included in this study,” Gotlib says.

“There’s no comparison group, so five years from now you can’t compare these kids to kids who haven’t experienced the pandemic – because they don’t exist,” he said.

What are the effects of the changes?

Although the physical brain changes sound serious, Gotlib stressed that we don’t yet know much about the long-term effects of these changes in adolescents.

“It could be that they biologically age faster as a result,” he said.

“But it could also be a blip and some kind of response to the stress of the pandemic.

‘This is a remarkable effect of a relatively short period of stress on the brain,’ he pointed out. “And maybe that gives me some hope that it won’t last.”

Adolescent brains are still elastic and can adapt and change relatively easily.

“Perhaps this is adaptation to the stress of the pandemic – and when the stress subsides, aging will slow down,” Gotlib said.

Gotlib said it is particularly important that the negative changes in mental health identified in the study are treatable.

“You can’t go directly to the brain and change it, but you can treat mental health, depression and anxiety. And I think that’s the most important thing,” he said.

“I assume that treating the psychological components will normalize or even slow down the progression of the brain changes.”

Gotlib and his team will rescan the teens’ brains when they are 20 years old.

Further research on a diverse test group is required

The findings could also have implications for other long-term studies spanning the pandemic, said Jonas Miller, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut in the US, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Gotlib’s lab during the study.

“We often do long-term studies and the pandemic has affected our entire area,” he told Euronews.

“Therefore, I think we need to think carefully about our analyzes and the assumptions we make when doing different types of analysis that include people screened both before and during the pandemic.”

Miller also spoke about some limitations of the study, including the fact that the teens studied were all from the San Francisco Bay Area. Ideally, a different sample would be much larger and more diverse, he said.

“It would be nice to get a sense of whether these results are replicated in other, larger samples; and also in samples that are more socioeconomically and ethnically diverse,” Miller said.

The team believes another important task for future research is to determine whether these changes are merely temporary effects or stable changes that are shaping today’s generation of young people.

Gotlib plans to follow the same group of young people into late adolescence and young adulthood and track whether the pandemic has altered their brain development in the long term.

He also plans to track their mental health and compare the brain structure of those who were infected with the virus to those who were not.

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