Generational mental health fears as COVID stress ages teenagers’ brains

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a potential generational mental health crisis after new research suggested that pandemic-related stressors have physically altered adolescents’ brains.

The study from Stanford University cautioned the stress have made adolescents’ brain structures appear several years older than the brains of comparable peers before the pandemic.

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

“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, the David Starr Jordan professor of Psychology in the School of Humanities & Sciences, who is the first author on the paper.

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

These findings might also have serious consequences for an entire generation of adolescents 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 psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut.

“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 behaviour,” Miller said. “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.”

By comparing MRI scans from a cohort of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic, Gotlib’s study showed that this developmental process sped up in adolescents as they experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns. Until now, he said, these sorts of accelerated changes in “brain age” have appeared only in children who have experienced chronic adversity, whether from violence, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination of multiple factors.

Although those experiences are linked to poor mental health outcomes later in life, it’s unclear whether the changes in brain structure that the Stanford team observed are linked to changes in mental health, Gotlib added.

“It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” said Gotlib, who is also the director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory at Stanford University. “Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’? 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?”

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