Teens’ brains aged faster than usual due to pandemic stress, study says

Teens’ brains aged faster than usual due to pandemic stress, study says


The stress caused by the pandemic prematurely aged the brains of teenagers by at least three years, in a way similar to the changes observed in children who faced chronic stress and adversity, research has shown.

A study published on Thursday in Biological psychiatry: Global open sciencewas the first to compare scans of the physical brain structures of teenagers before and after the start of the pandemic and document significant differences, said Ian Gotlib, lead author of the paper and professor of psychology at Stanford University.

The researchers knew that teenagers had higher “levels of depression, anxiety and fear” than “before the pandemic”. But we didn’t know anything about the effects on their brains,” said Gotlib, who is director of Stanford’s Laboratory for Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology. “We thought there might be effects similar to what you might find with early adversity; we just didn’t know how strong they would be.”

By comparing MRI scans of a group of 128 children, half taken before and half at the end of the first year of the pandemic, researchers found growth in the hippocampus and amygdala, areas of the brain that control access to some memories and help regulate fear, stress and other emotions.

They also found tissue thinning in the cortex, which is involved in executive functioning. These changes occur during normal adolescent development; however, the pandemic appears to have accelerated the process, Gotlib said.

Premature aging of a child’s brain is not a positive development. Before the pandemic, it was observed in cases of chronic childhood stress, trauma, abuse and neglect. these bad experiences from childhood not only do they make people more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental illnesses, they can increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other long-term negative outcomes.

The pre-pandemic images of teenage brains came from a longitudinal study that Gotlib’s team began eight years ago, with the original goal of better understanding gender differences in adolescent depression rates. The researchers recruited 220 children between the ages of 9 and 13, with the plan to have MRI brain scans every two years. While they were collecting the third set of scans, the pandemic halted all personal research at Stanford, preventing scientists from collecting brain scan data from March 2020 until the end of that year.

While debating how to explain the disorder, scientists saw an opportunity to investigate a different question: how the pandemic itself might have affected the physical structure of children’s brains and their mental health. They matched pairs of children of the same age and sex, creating subgroups with similar puberty, socioeconomic status, and exposure to childhood stress. “This allowed us to compare 16-year-olds before the pandemic with different 16-year-olds assessed after the pandemic,” Gotlib said.

To determine the average brain age of their samples, the researchers fed their brain scans into a machine learning model for brain age prediction developed by the ENIGMA-Brain Age Working Group, a collaboration of scientists pooling brain imaging datasets. They also assessed mental health symptoms reported by matched couples. They found more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and internalizing problems in the group that experienced the pandemic.

“For me, the conclusion is that there are serious problems with mental health and children around the pandemic,” said Gotlib. “Just because the shutdown is over doesn’t mean we’re okay.”

Prior Research found dramatically higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicidality and other mental illnesses among adolescents since the start of the pandemic.

The current study has important implications for other longitudinal studies of adolescent brain imaging, said Jason Chein, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Temple University’s Brain Imaging and Research Center. “It has both methodological implications and potentially socially relevant implications,” Chein said.

Longitudinal studies of development that span a pandemic can yield findings that are tainted by psychosocial influences, so broad conclusions about development cannot be drawn, Chein said. And for society, the implications are that teenagers and young adults may need long-term, ongoing mental and other support because this group may not be as advanced as expected based on their chronological age alone.

However, he cautioned against making broad interpretations based on the changes the researchers observed. “It’s quite interesting that they observed this change,” he said. “But I’m reluctant to jump to the conclusion that this signals to us that we’ve somehow advanced the maturation of children’s brains.” In particular, brain regions can show non-linear growth patterns, so simply seeing a thinner cortex or larger volume of the amygdala doesn’t necessarily mean the brain is older, he said.

Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, noted that many individuals experience post-traumatic growth after a stressful experience. “The researchers are to be commended for their hard work to come up with these data,” Siegel said. “You want to ask the bigger question, how does this affect the remodeling process of the brain?”

“This is a useful initial study,” agreed David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. “I expect the results will inform future research initiatives.”

In the paper, the authors admit that they do not yet know whether the physical changes to the brain will be maintained. They plan to do another set of scans at the next scheduled two-year point and continue to collect data on study participants.

Stacy Gittleman, 54, of West Bloomfield, Michigan, saw the pandemic derail one of her children. A future actor in musical theater, he was a junior in high school when the school and theater were shut down. “So much of how my son thrives depends on movement, acting, doing hands-on work and interacting with others,” Gittleman said. “He spent a lot of time in bed, which as a parent was very painful to watch, as my son was so lively and sociable before the pandemic.”

Managing his mental health will be a lifelong task, she said, noting that his older siblings, now 24 and 26, have not felt as much of an impact. “In the long run, the adversity thrown at the feet of our teenagers, I believe, will make them stronger and more resilient,” she said.

Other parents are not so sure. Meg Martin, 55, of Gaithersburg, Md., believes it’s too soon to tell if the teenagers will get back on track. Her son, now a senior in high school, had previously intended to apply to a four-year international college, but after years of online and hybrid learning, he feels unmotivated and disconnected from school.

“I really think the way his high school years went is going to have a negative effect for years to come,” Martin said.

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