Brain scans suggest the pandemic prematurely aged teens’ brains


The COVID-19 epidemic may have caused teenagers' brains to develop beyond their years.

The previous several years have been difficult for young people, with issues ranging from online learning and social isolation to economic difficulties and a rising death toll. The epidemic and its numerous adverse effects struck teenagers at a critical juncture in their brain development.

According to a recent modest research comparing brain scans of children and adolescents from before and after the year 2020, those who experienced the pandemic appear to have brains that are around three years older than normal.

This study, which appeared on December 1 in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, is the first to examine how the epidemic has affected aging in the brain.

According to Ian Gotlib, a clinical neurologist at Stanford University, the data shows that "the epidemic hasn't been disastrous merely in terms of mental health for teenagers." Their minds appear to have changed as well.

The study is unable to connect these brain abnormalities to the pandemic's poor mental health. But Beatriz Luna, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study, notes that "we know there is a link between adversity and the brain as it attempts to adapt to what it's been given." "I believe this is a crucial research that opens the door for us to look at this," the author said.

This study has its origins in a project that Gotlib and his associates started to investigate teenage depression in the Bay Area of California over ten years ago. The children in the study had their brains scanned using an MRI while the researchers were gathering data on their mental health.

In the spring of 2020, lockdown orders compelled the researchers to abandon the study. When they began again a year later, Gotlib was concerned that the pandemic's stress may distort their findings.

It came out that compared to their friends from before 2020, the children returning to the study after a year of pandemic living reported greater rates of worry and sadness. In order to compare brain scans taken prior to the pandemic with scans done between October 2020 and March 2022, the team chose to do so.

With an average age of roughly 16 for each group, the researchers compared 64 scans from each group that were matched by the youngsters' sex and age.

According to Gotlib, the results were "striking."

Adolescent brains naturally go through a maturation process that leads in the thickening of the amygdala, which controls emotional processing, and the hippocampus, which is linked with memory and focus. The cortex, a region that controls emotional behavior, begins to shrink at the same time.

The results of the brain scans showed that youths who had survived the epidemic had matured more swiftly. According to Gotlib, their brains seemed three to four years older than the teen brains tested before the epidemic began.

It's unclear exactly whether aspect of the epidemic may have influenced how teen brains developed. However, according to Joan Luby, a child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who wasn't involved in the study, "this study suggests that the pandemic has had a substantive influence on brain growth."

Stress, according to Gotlib, may be to fault. According to earlier research, youngsters who experience violence or carelessness develop their brains faster than average. Given that teen mental health declined during the pandemic (SN: 9/8/22), Gotlib says "it's not a great jump" to assume that the stressful circumstances may also have influenced brain development in his study's group.

However, it is still unknown what changed and what effects they may have had. Neuroscientist Rudolf Uher of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, draws attention to the possibility that additional variables, such as increased screen time brought on by online learning, are at work. He also issues a warning that the results of this study might not be supported by future research.

Furthermore, it's not known if faster brain aging has an effect on teen health or if problems will show up later in life. Although no one knows for sure, Luby asserts that "if your brain is prematurely aging, that's typically not a healthy thing."

In either case, Gotlib adds, making sure that individuals have access to mental health treatments will be essential for treating children affected by the epidemic.

He says, "These youngsters are hurting." We must take it seriously and ensure that we are providing them with therapy.

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