In Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, the study was presented.
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 reorganisation – even in the absence of a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns.
In a recent study, Stanford University and University of California, San Francisco researchers found that part of this rearranging had been “accelerated” by the epidemic, with the cortex becoming thinner and the hippocampus and amygdala becoming larger.
“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 Gotlib, Director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory in California.
The team examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 81 children taken between November 2016 and November 2019 before the pandemic and 82 children taken between October 2020 and March 2022 during the pandemic but after lockdown restrictions had been relaxed (spring 2020, in California).
To provide them with various comparison points, the researchers then matched kids from both groups based on variables like sex, age, pubertal state, ethnicity, early life stress, and socioeconomic background.
The scans revealed that the post-pandemic group’s brain ageing process appeared to have accelerated.
The second group of children’s brains aged by the equivalent of three years during lockdown periods of less than a year.
Though it’s unclear if it’s directly related to brain age, the post-pandemic group also showed signs of worse mental health.
What this study is unable to tell us is whether these changes will be permanent or whether the hastened changes in these vital brain regions will lead to new mental health issues.
“Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’?” asks Gotlib. “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?”
To learn more, more study will be needed.
The team intends to follow the same group of individuals as they age, keeping an eye out for potential changes in brain structure and any potential issues with mental health. The entire group of teenagers had been enlisted in a study on depression related to puberty. The research, however, took a different turn with the advent of COVID-19 and a necessary break during lockdowns.
The results might suggest that other brain research has to be updated to account for this acceleration of neurological ageing. Though it won’t be easy to spot the changes, children who survived the pandemic won’t necessarily have the same neurological condition as children who did not.