COVID-19 pandemic-related stressors may be physically altering teenagers’ brains, making them appear several years older than before the pandemic. Such accelerated brain growth changes have only been witnessed in children experiencing trauma, such as neglect and family dysfunction. A new study by Stanford University presses into the subject.
The pandemic adversely affects mental health
Compared to previous years, anxiety and depression in adults increased by 25% in 2020. New research findings suggest that the neurological and mental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescents may have been even worse.
Global research found that the pandemic was harming the mental health of adolescents. However, its physical effects on the brain were relatively unknown, according to Ian Gotlib, the Marjorie Mhoon Fair Professor of Psychology in the School of Humanities & Sciences.
Changes in brain structure
Gotlib observes that changes in brain structure occur naturally as one ages. During puberty and early adolescence, teenagers’ bodies experience accelerated growth in the hippocampus and amygdala, the areas of the brain that control memory access and help modulate emotions. Simultaneously, tissues in the cortex, which are involved in executive function, become thin.
By comparing MRI brain scans from 163 teenagers taken before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Goltib’s study revealed that the developmental process in adolescents accelerated as they experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns. He claims that accelerated brain age changes have only been seen in children who have faced trauma, whether from violence, family dysfunction, neglect, or a combination of factors.
The relation between brain structure and mental health
Although chronic adversity is associated with poor mental health outcomes later in life, it is unclear whether the Stanford team’s observations of changes in brain structure are associated with changes in mental health.
Because of brain changes, a 70- or 80-year-old is likely to have cognitive and memory issues. But if a 16-year-old’s brain aged too quickly, what would that mean for them?
The researchers weren’t certain if the modifications were long-term. It’s unclear what will happen if their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age. Will their chronology eventually catch up to their brain’s age?
COVID-19 and brain structure
Gotlib’s original study was not intended to investigate the effects of COVID-19 on brain structure. Before the pandemic, his lab had enrolled a group of children and adolescents in a long-term study of depression during puberty. However, the regular MRI scans had to be halted when the pandemic struck.
Nine months later, he resumed his study, but it was a year behind schedule. Under normal circumstances, one could statistically correct the delay in data analysis. The pandemic, however, wasn’t an ordinary event.
Gotlib’s technique could only work if he assumed that 16-year-old brains today are the same as 16-year-old brains before the pandemic. After analyzing the data, he realized that they were not.
Adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns had severe internalization of mental health problems, lower cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and older brain age.
Future implications of the study
These findings could have far-reaching implications for long-term studies spanning the COVID-19 pandemic.
If teens exposed to the pandemic exhibit accelerated brain development, researchers would need to consider this abnormal growth rate in future studies of this generation. There is no one who has not been affected by the pandemic. As a result, there is no actual control group.
What it could mean for teenagers
These findings could have a long-term effect on a whole generation of teenagers. Adolescence is already a time when the brain undergoes rapid reorganization, and it is also associated with higher rates of mental health issues, depression, and risk-taking behavior.
Everyone is facing adversity due to the disruption to their everyday lives brought on by the global pandemic. The brains of today’s 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t comparable to those of their predecessors just a few years ago.