Teenagers’ developing brains have aged more quickly as a result of the stress of experiencing pandemic lockdowns. The results are comparable to those previously seen as a result of abuse, neglect, and broken families.
Even if you’ve long since passed through adolescence, you might recall that it can be a difficult time for ideas and feelings and that the brain undergoes a lot of reorganization – even in the absence of a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns.
The epidemic had ‘accelerated some of this reorganization, thinned the cortex, and increased the size of the hippocampus and the amygdala portions of the brain,’ according to a new study by Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco experts.
“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,” says psychologist Ian GotlibDirector of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory in California.
The team looked at magnetic resonance imaging ( MRI) brain scans of 81 children taken before the pandemic (between November 2016 and November 2019), and 82 children taken during the pandemic (between October 2020 and March 2022) but after lockdown restrictions had eased ( spring 2020, in California).
Next, the researchers matched children from both groups using factors including sex, age, pubertal status, ethnicity, early life stress, and socioeconomic background, to give them multiple comparison points.
What the scans showed was that the brain aging process had seemingly accelerated in the post-pandemic group. Lockdown periods of less than a year resulted in the equivalent of three years of brain aging in the second selection of youngsters.
Poorer mental health was also noticed in the post-pandemic group, although it’s not clear if that’s directly related to brain age. What this study can’t tell us is whether these changes are going to be permanent, or whether there are further mental health problems that will arise from the accelerated changes in these key brain structures.
“Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’?” asks Gottlieb, “If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it’s unclear what the outcomes will be in the future.
“For a 70 or 80-year-old, you’d expect some cognitive and memory problems based on changes in the brain, but what does it mean for a 16-year-old if their brains are aging prematurely?”
More research is going to be required to find out. The team plans to continue tracking the same group of people as they get older, looking out for further changes in brain structure and any mental health complications that might develop.
All of the young people had been recruited for a study on depression during puberty. However, the arrival of COVID-19 – and a necessary pause in the study during lockdowns – sent the research in a different direction.
The findings could indicate a need to correct other brain studies that would have to take this neurological aging acceleration into account. Kids that have lived through the pandemic aren’t necessarily going to be in the same neurological state as the kids that came before them, though picking out those differences won’t be straightforward.
“The pandemic is a global phenomenon – there’s no one who hasn’t experienced it,” says Gottlieb, “There’s no real control group.”
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