The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic might have physically altered adolescents’ brains, Stanford University researchers said Thursday in an alarming report.
Researchers said brains seemed to age faster than normal in those who experienced the pandemic and its restrictions.
Typically, these accelerated changes in “brain age” only occur in children who experience chronic adversity from things like violence or neglect. Reports of anxiety and depression soared during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 but the findings suggest physical changes, too.
“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,” said Ian Gotlib, psychology professor and lead author of the paper published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.
Researchers said it is common for brains to change during puberty and early teenage years — particularly in the hippocampus and the amygdala, the parts that control access to memories and control emotions. Tissues in the cortex, which deals with cognitive control and “executive functions,” grow thinner.
The Stanford researchers looked at MRI scans of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic and concluded the brain-development process sped up in adolescents as they experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns.
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The height of the coronavirus crisis in 2020-2021 was notably difficult for young people. They faced academic hurdles from trying to learn remotely while their classrooms were closed, and they could not socialize with friends or play organized sports like they would in non-pandemic years.
“Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns not only had more severe internalizing mental health problems, but also had reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age,” Mr. Gotlib said.
Persons who saw rapid brain aging from things like violence or neglect have experienced mental health problems later in life. The Stanford researchers said they aren’t sure if the pandemic-impacted children will have similar problems.
They said the changes may or may not be permanent, and their chronological ages may “catch up” with their brain ages.
Researchers plan to track the same cohort of adolescents into their late teenage years and early adult years to understand the long-term impacts of accelerated brain growth. They will also study the adolescents’ mental health and whether there are any differences between studied those who caught the virus and those who didn’t.
The researchers said the pandemic impacted everyone on the globe, so there is no real control group for comparison purposes and the brain changes might be a generational phenomenon.
“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,” said Jonas Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in Mr. Gotlib’s lab. “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.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.