Study finds pandemic stress aged teens brains

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A Stanford University study published Thursday found that stress from the COVID-19 pandemic prematurely aged adolescents’ brains, making them more like those of peers about three years older.

By comparing MRI scans from children taken before the pandemic with scans from other kids taken during the pandemic, the study found that changes in brain structure that occur naturally with age sped up in adolescents as they experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns. That could have lasting implications for those youths’  if the changes are found to be more than temporary.

“We know developmentally that brains change over time, that’s not at all a surprise,” said Stanford Professor of Psychology Ian Gotlib, lead author of the study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science. “What was surprising here was how quickly these changes occurred in adolescents as a result of the pandemic.”

What those changes mean as far as the teens’ brain function and mental health, and whether the changes will be temporary or lasting, is unclear, Gotlib said.

But the study said research done before the pandemic already had found a link between exposure to early life adversity — violence, neglect, and family dysfunction — and not only poorer mental health but also accelerated brain aging.

The new study adds to a stack of evidence that children suffered mentally, emotionally and academically from pandemic school closures and the resulting isolation and family stress. A Stanford-based independent research group in 2021 found evidence that younger children’s ability to read aloud suffered, and newly released standardized test scores showed demonstrable decline in California and across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March reported that 37% of high school students reported poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

But the new Stanford study now documents physiological effects of pandemic stress on youth.

Co-author Jonas Miller, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Gotlib’s lab during the study and is now an assistant psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, said the findings suggest there could be serious consequences for an entire generation of adolescents later in life.

“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 told the Stanford News Service. “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.”

The findings about pandemic brain changes in teens stemmed from an ongoing long-term study begun about eight years ago to explore why adolescent girls have higher rates of depression than boys. The researchers were following a group of about 200 Bay Area adolescents and assessing them for changes, including with MRI scans every two years.

For the new study, they matched a group of 82 teens, ages 13-17, who had experienced the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns with a group of 81 teens who had been assessed before the pandemic. The two groups of youth were matched by sex, age, pubertal status, race and ethnicity, parental education, annual household income, and severity of early life stress.

Following the pandemic shutdowns, the researchers observed growth in the hippocampus and the amygdala areas of the brain that affect memories and emotions, and also found thinning in the cortex that affects executive functioning that made adolescents brains appear comparable to those of youths about three years older.

“The pandemic appears to have adversely affected both mental health and neurodevelopment in adolescents,” the study said, “at least in the short term.”

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