How the pandemic aged teenage brains

How the pandemic aged teenage brains

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The stress of living through the pandemic physically changed the brains of teenagers and prematurely aged them by at least three or four years, according to study by Stanford University.

Why it matters: While behavioral effects pandemics are well documented, data on the neurological development of young people were scarce.

What they found: In a comparison of 163 teenage MRI scans, half of which were taken before the pandemic and half after the pandemic, the “after” group showed accelerated signs of aging typically seen in children who have experienced violence and neglect.

  • A 16-year-old’s brain could be the equivalent of a 19- or 20-year-old’s before COVID, with an enlarged hippocampus — considered the center of memory and learning — and amygdala, which processes emotions.
  • Young respondents were also more likely to report severe anxiety, depression and mental health problems.

The study has begun eight years ago, with the initial goal of understanding why adolescent girls have higher rates of depression than boys of the same age.

  • The researchers first looked at the effects of early life stress on younger brains and clinical outcomes like anxiety and suicidal ideation, with a plan to bring the same participants in every two years, four separate times.
  • Covid halted the research halfway through the third round for 10 months — which blew a hole in the original timeline, said Ian Gotlib, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychology at Stanford.
  • So they decided to test whether the participants were the same as before the pandemic, Gotlib told Axios. “And it turned out they weren’t.”

Yes, but: Accelerated brain aging alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Gotlib, who pointed to troubling behavioral health challenges.

  • The researchers will follow these participants again in two years to see if aging continues to accelerate or if the phenomenon slows down with less of a pandemic stressor. It’s too early to know, Gotlib said.
  • “These are 16-18-year-olds. They’re not atrophying in an alarming way,” Gotlib told Axios. “To me, the cause for concern is their higher rates of depression, anxiety and sadness … that makes it all the more important to address it.”

Between the lines: School closings and separation from peers during the pandemic have created a form of toxic stress for teenagers, said John Richardson-Lauve, director of mental health at ChildSavers, a nonprofit focused on trauma-informed therapy for children in low-income areas.

  • This can cause a person to have less control over their amygdala, triggering a fight-or-flight response in traumatic situations, Richardson-Lauve said.

  • For the hippocampus, experiencing adversity may mean processing memories differently and in a non-linear way as a form of coping.
  • Although the brain has the ability to heal and recover, we can never erase the events of the trauma of the experience,” Richardson-Lauve said. “Things never go back to normal after bad things happen. It’s a kind of myth.”

Remark: Multiple factors influence how mentally challenged youth cope with adulthood, said Randy Auerbach, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University who studies adolescent depression and suicide.

  • Outcomes depend on a person’s access to quality health care, openness to treatment, and availability of that treatment.
  • There is also a critical shortage of behavioral health workers to meet the need for services, per a report by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation in October.

What is next: Gotlib said the researchers want to compare brain scans of teenagers who were infected with COVID to those who were not to identify changes.

  • In the study, scans of 10 subjects who got the virus looked worse than those of uninfected subjects, Gotlib said.
  • But even when these youngsters were excluded from the study, the physiological aging observed in the studied adolescents did not change.

Bottom line: “I don’t know how far those effects will go,” Gotlib said, but “they’re certainly here now.”

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