The brains of American adolescents have physically changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, aging faster than normal, according to a new study.
Younger study participants also reported more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and what scientists call internalized issues – that is, feelings of sadness, low self-esteem and fear and difficulty regulating their emotions – after the first year of the pandemic.
Dozens of studies have found that teen and adolescent mental health has suffered during the pandemic. They have been pulled out of school, away from friends and familiar support structures, and have had to live with the uncertainty and fear that comes with the coronavirus. Many parents have lost their jobs. Millions of children have lost their parents and grandparents to Covid-19.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, is one of the first to look at the physical changes in the brain brought about by stress and anxiety.
The research stems from a larger study in which scientists were trying to understand gender differences in adolescent depression.
Eight years ago, they decided to have MRI scans of 220 children between the ages of 9 and 13 every two years. The team had done two rounds of analysis when the pandemic halted their research, and they weren’t able to start analyzing again until late 2020.
When their research was halted, the team decided it would be interesting to study the effects of this stressful event on children’s brain development. Pre-pandemic analyzes would help them make this comparison.
The researchers matched children in the same demographics – including gender, age, exposure to stress and socioeconomic status.
To find the average age of the brain, they subjected the MRIs to a model that aggregates data from other analyses.
The researchers compared the MRIs of 128 children. Half of the scans were performed before the pandemic and the other half at the end of 2020.
They found that children who lived through the first year of the pandemic had brain ages older than their chronological age.
Brains that had gone through the start of the pandemic had growth in the area that can help regulate fear and stress, called the amygdala, and in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that can control access to memories. Tissue had thinned in the part of the brain that controls executive functioning, the cortex.
A child’s brain naturally changes over time, but research has shown that these physical changes can accelerate when a person goes through a period of significant adversity during childhood.
Studies have shown that people exposed to abuse, neglect, poverty and family problems early in life have faster brain aging and may have mental health problems later.
Ian Gotlib, lead author of the new study, said the research team expected to find anxiety, depression and internalized issues. “The pandemic hasn’t been good for adolescent mental health,” said Stanford University psychology professor Gotlib.
But they didn’t know exactly what they would find with the MRIs.
“It’s always interesting to do research like this when you’re not really sure what’s going to happen,” Gotlib said. “These effects were interesting and happened quite quickly.
“It was only a one-year shutdown, so we had no idea the effects on the brain would be so pronounced after such a short period of stress,” he added. “It follows the mental health difficulties that we see.”
What’s unclear, he says, is whether the brain changes will have an impact later in life. The research team plans to scan the same children later to track their brain development. It’s possible their brain changes were just an immediate response to a stressor that will normalize over time, he said.
The team also plans to examine the 10 children in the study who had Covid-19 to see if there is a different effect. Physical differences appear to be “a bit more pronounced” in children who have had Covid, Gotlib said.
Dr. Max Wiznitzer, chief of pediatric neurology at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, said the changes in the brain were interesting, but what’s important is whether mental health issues persist.
“Anatomy is not important. It’s the functionality that’s important,” said Wiznitzer, who was not involved in the research. “The clinical consequence here is the functional impact, mental health status clinically and how it works and how you deal with it.”
With appropriate mental health interventions, issues like anxiety or depression can be managed. “The brain has this ability to reorganize — or call it an enhancement, if you will,” Wiznitzer added.
Gotlib hopes parents and guardians will keep in mind that while school closings and shutdowns may be over, the mental health consequences may linger.
“Make sure your teenager gets all the help he or she might need if they have symptoms of depression, anxiety” or are withdrawn.
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