Pandemic Brain Stress in Physically Aged Adolescents, New Study Finds |  Stanford News

Pandemic Brain Stress in Physically Aged Adolescents, New Study Finds | Stanford News

A new study from Stanford University suggests that pandemic-related stressors have physically altered adolescent brains, making their brain structures appear several years older than the brains of comparable pre-pandemic peers. The study was published on December 1, 2022 in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.

The brains of adolescents who were assessed after the pandemic ended appeared several years older than those of adolescents who were assessed before the pandemic. (Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2020 alone, reports of anxiety and depression in adults increased by more than 25% compared to previous years. The new findings indicate that the neurological and mental effects of the pandemic on adolescents may have been even worse.

“We already know from global research that the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on the mental health of young people, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was physically doing to their brains,” said Ian. Gotlib, Marjorie Mhoon Fair Professor of Psychology in the School of Humanities and Science, who is the first author of the paper.

Changes in brain structure occur naturally as we age, Gotlib notes. During puberty and early adolescence, children’s bodies experience increased growth of the hippocampus and amygdala, areas of the brain that respectively control access to certain memories and help modulate emotions. At the same time, tissues in the cortex, an area involved in executive functioning, are thinning.

By comparing MRI scans of a cohort of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic, Gotlib’s study showed that this developmental process accelerated in adolescents as they endured COVID-19-related lockdowns. . So far, he says, these kinds of accelerated “brain age” changes have only appeared in children who have experienced chronic adversity, whether from abuse, neglect, family dysfunction or a combination of several factors.

While these experiences are linked to poor mental health outcomes later in life, it’s unclear whether the changes in brain structure observed by the Stanford team are linked to changes in mental health, a noted Gotlib.

“It’s also unclear if the changes are permanent,” said Gotlib, who is also director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory at Stanford University. “Will their chronological age eventually catch up with their “brain age”? If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it is unclear what the results will be in the future. For someone in their 70s or 80s, one would expect cognitive and memory problems based on changes in the brain, but what does it mean for a 16-year-old if their brain is aging prematurely? »

Originally, Gotlib explained, his study was not designed to examine the impact of COVID-19 on brain structure. Before the pandemic, his lab had recruited a cohort of children and adolescents from the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a long-term study of depression during puberty – but when the pandemic hit, he didn’t. couldn’t perform regular MRI scans on these youngsters.

“Then nine months later we had a tough restart,” Gotlib said.

Once Gotlib was able to continue the brain scans of his cohort, the study fell a year behind schedule. Under normal circumstances, it would be possible to statistically correct for the lag when analyzing the study data – but the pandemic was far from a normal event. “This technique only works if you assume that the brains of 16-year-olds today are the same as those of 16-year-olds before the pandemic in terms of cortical thickness and volume of the hippocampus and hippocampus. the amygdala,” Gotlib said. “After reviewing our data, we realized that was not the case. Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns not only had more severe internalized mental health issues, but also had reduced cortical thickness, greater hippocampal and amygdala volume, and older brain age.

These findings could have major implications for other longitudinal studies that have covered the pandemic. If children who lived through the pandemic show accelerated brain development, scientists will need to account for this abnormal growth rate in any future research involving this generation.

“The pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon – there is no one who has not experienced it,” Gotlib said. “There is no real control group.”

These findings could also have serious consequences for a whole generation of teenagers later in life, added co-author Jonas Miller, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Gotlib’s lab during the study and is now an assistant professor of science. psychology at the University of Connecticut.

“Adolescence is already a time of rapid brain reorganization, and it’s already linked to increased rates of mental health problems, depression, and risky behaviors,” Miller said. “Now you have this global event happening where everyone is experiencing some kind of adversity in the form of disruption to their daily routines – so it may be that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today today is not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago.

Going forward, Gotlib plans to continue following the same cohort of children through late adolescence and early adulthood, testing whether the COVID pandemic has altered the trajectory of their brain development. long-term. He also plans to track the mental health of these teenagers and compare the brain structure of those who have been infected with the virus with those who have not, in a bid to identify any subtle differences that may have occurred. .

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