BY KER THAN-STANFORD

Pandemic-related stressors have physically altered adolescents’ brains, making their brain structures appear several years older than the brains of comparable peers before the pandemic, research suggests.

The study appears in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.

In 2020 alone, reports of anxiety and depression in adults rose by more than 25% compared to previous years. The new findings indicate that the neurological and mental health effects of the pandemic on adolescents may have been even worse.

“…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.”

“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,” says first author Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Changes in brain structure occur naturally as we age, Gotlib notes. During puberty and early teenage years, kids’ bodies experience increased growth in both the hippocampus and the amygdala, areas of the brain that respectively 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 cohort of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic, Gotlib’s study showed that this developmental process sped up in adolescents as they experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns. Until now, he says, these sorts of accelerated changes in “brain age” have appeared only in children who have experienced chronic adversity, whether from violence, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination of multiple factors.

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

“It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” says Gotlib, who is also the director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory at Stanford University. “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?”

Link to article in Futurity by Ker Than-Stanford

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