The pandemic has physically altered teens’ brains, a study finds.
Numerous studies have shown that depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among American youth peaked during Covid after repeated school closures, mask mandates and lockdowns.
Stanford University scientists have now shown that the pandemic accelerated the aging process and altered brain regions responsible for memories, executive functions and regulating emotions.
The study looked at brain scans of 163 children and adolescents from the San Francisco Bay Area before the pandemic and in 2021.
Scientists said they couldn’t be sure if the changes were permanent, or how they would affect young people later in life.
Forty-four percent of young people found to be above the threshold for ‘probable mental health problems’, statistics showed (file photo)
They believe the changes have been driven by stress over the pandemic – including concerns about grades and social isolation.
Professor Ian Gotlib, lead author of the study, from Stanford University in the United States, said: ‘We already know from global research that the pandemic has negatively affected young people’s mental health, but we didn’t know what it was doing physically. to their brains.’
During puberty and the early teens, the structure of the brain changes as young people reach early adulthood.
The hippocampus and amygdala regions — in the center that control access to certain memories and help regulate emotions — both expand.
At the same time, the cortex, the outermost layer of the front of the brain involved in executive functions, is thinning.
Both processes were accelerated during the pandemic, the study published in the journal found Biological psychiatry showed.
So far, accelerated changes in ‘brain age’ have only occurred in children who have experienced ‘chronic adversity’, such as violence or neglect.
Levels of anxiety and depression among children continued to rise during the Covid pandemic. The figure above is from an HHS survey
Professor Gotlib said that while those experiences are linked to poor mental health outcomes later in life, it is unclear whether the changes in brain structure his team observed are linked to changes in mental health.
He said: “It is also not clear whether the changes are permanent.
Will their chronological age eventually catch up with their ‘brain age’? If their brains remain permanently older than their chronological age, it’s unclear what the outcomes will be in the future.
Nearly half of all young people now suffer from poor mental health
The proportion of young people with mental health problems has almost doubled in 15 years, a ‘very disturbing’ study suggests.
Forty-four percent of young people were found to be above the threshold for ‘probable mental health problems’, indicating high levels of mental health problems.
This figure is higher than the 23 percent in a similar 2007 study and points to a decline in mental health and well-being, which has likely been accelerated by the pandemic, researchers said.
A sample of 13,000 children in England who were in year 11 (aged 15-16) in 2021 also found differences in the mental health of boys and girls. The latter fared worse, with 11 percent reporting suicide attempts.
“For a 70 or 80 year old you would expect some 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, the Stanford study was not designed to look at the impact of Covid-19 on brain structure.
Before the pandemic, the team had recruited a group of children and adolescents from across the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a long-term study of depression during puberty.
But when the pandemic hit, they couldn’t perform regularly scheduled MRI scans on the participants.
Professor Gotlib said, ‘Then, nine months later, we had a rough reboot.’
Once he was able to proceed with brain scans, the study was a year behind schedule.
Prof Gotlib explained that under normal circumstances it would be possible to statistically correct for the delay when analyzing the study’s data – but the pandemic was far from normal.
He said: ‘That technique only works if you assume that the brains of 16-year-olds today are the same as the brains of 16-year-olds before the pandemic with regard to the thickness of the cortex and the volume of the hippocampus and amygdala.
“After looking at our data, we realized that this is not the case.
“Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns had not only more severe internalizing mental health problems, but also reduced cortical thickness, increased hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age.”
Prof Gotlib said the findings could have “major implications” for other studies that have spanned the pandemic.
If young people who have lived through the pandemic show accelerated brain development, scientists will have to take that “abnormal” growth rate into account in future research involving this generation.
He added: ‘The pandemic is a global phenomenon – no one has not experienced it. There is no real control group.’
Co-author Dr Jonas Miller said the findings could also have ‘serious implications’ for a whole generation of adolescents later in life.
Dr. Miller, now an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, added, “Adolescence is already a period of rapid reorganization in the brain, and it’s already been linked to an increased rate of mental health problems, depression and risky behaviors. .
“Now you have this global event taking place 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 are not comparable to those of their counterparts only a few years ago.’