Teen brains aged faster during stress, anxiety pandemic: study
In addition to significantly increased rates of anxiety and depression, Stanford University researchers found the COVID-19 pandemic aged teenagers’ brains by nearly three years, according to a study published Thursday.
IN “The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and brain maturation in adolescents,” a group of seven researchers compared MRI scans of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 before the pandemic with scans of the same age group taken during the pandemic.
The images showed that the brains of teenagers during the pandemic looked almost three years older than they did before COVID.
The scans also reportedly showed structural changes in the brain and changes in parts of the brain responsible for memory, concentration, learning, emotion, reactivity and reasoning.
“Even though they were the same age, their brains looked older,” said lead author Ian Gotlib, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, according to USA Today. “It confirms the stress they experienced during the pandemic and the effects it had, not just on their mental health, but on their brains as well.”
The researchers also found that post-pandemic adolescents had larger volumes of the hippocampus and amygdala, which control access to memories and help modulate emotions. A reduced thickness of the cortical tissue was also noted.
Experts in the study say it’s still unclear how the changes will affect teenagers and their futures, but for now, it serves as evidence that mental health disorders in teenagers increased during the pandemic.
Before this study, researchers said accelerated changes in “brain aging” had only been found in children who have experienced chronic problems such as violence, neglect, family dysfunction or a combination.
dr. R. Meredith Elkins, program co-director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital, told USA Today that the results of this study do not surprise those in the clinical world.
“Since March 2020, our clinic has seen an objective increase in the severity of anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, co-occurring depression, and risk-taking behaviors associated with distress,” she said.
Elkins also said that pediatric screening at her clinic shows that about 60% of children have a recent history of self-harm or suicidal ideation.
She added that the children said that one of the biggest sources of pandemic stress was “lack of social support and isolation during quarantine”. Many children also experienced increased anxiety about health risks and academic stress from the sudden return to school.
“You had that period of relative ease academically, and then all of a sudden the kids are back in school and the demands are increasing,” she told USA Today. “They have a real concern that they’re falling behind and can’t catch up.”
Gotlib said his team of researchers is planning keep studying the same teenagers through young adulthood to see if their brains age prematurely or resynchronize.
He also reportedly plans to study the brain structure of children who contracted COVID-19 to see if they experienced additional changes.
Until then, Elkins said the study proved the need for more resources for the growing mental health crisis among today’s youth.
“We need more sustained federal and public investment to increase access to mental health care for youth,” she said. “Trust our children that these issues require action.”