Post-pandemic adolescent brains show signs of aging faster, study finds

The brains of teenagers who have lived through the Covid pandemic show signs of premature aging, research has found.

The researchers compared MRI scans of 81 adolescents in the United States taken before the pandemic, between November 2016 and November 2019, with those of 82 adolescents collected between October 2020 and March 2022, during the pandemic but after the lockdowns were lifted.

After matching 64 participants from each group for factors such as age and gender, the team found that physical changes in the brain that occur during adolescence – such as thinning of the cortex and growth of the hippocampus and amygdala – were more prominent post-lockdown. group than in the pre-pandemic group, suggesting that these processes had accelerated. In other words, their brains had aged faster.

“The brain age difference was about three years – we didn’t expect such a large increase given the lockdown lasted less than a year [long]said Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford University and first author of the study.

Writing in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, the team reports that the participants – a representative sample of adolescents from the Bay Area in California – initially agreed to take part in a study examining the impact of early stress on health. mind through puberty. Accordingly, participants were also assessed for symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The post-lockdown group self-reported greater mental health difficulties, including more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and internalizing issues.

Gotlib said the findings were consistent with those of other researchers studying the pandemic’s impact on adolescent mental health. “With deteriorating mental health comes physical changes in adolescent brains, likely due to the stress of the pandemic,” he said.

But it’s not yet clear if the poor mental health captured in the study is due to faster brain aging, or even if the latter is bad news for teens.

“We don’t know yet – we start rescanning all participants at age 20, so we’ll have a better idea of ​​whether these changes persist or start to diminish over time,” Gotlib said.

“In older adults, these brain changes are often associated with reduced cognitive functioning. It is not yet known what they mean in adolescents. But this is the first demonstration that mental health difficulties during the pandemic are accompanied by what appear to be stress-related changes in brain structure.

Michael Thomas, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Birkbeck University in London, who was not involved in the study, said the research confirmed the difficulties adolescents in particular have experienced during the pandemic, with an increase in anxiety and depression. But, he added, it was unclear what the differences in brain structure size meant for current or future behavior.

“Large-scale measurements of the brain don’t tell us about the detailed circuitry that governs behavior. I would say it is highly speculative what the long term consequences, if any, will be and whether these brain changes will persist or fade away.

Thomas also pointed out that it was not clear that the potential impacts would necessarily be negative, noting that some of the accelerated changes reported by the team were also associated with higher performance, such as in intelligence tests.

“Famous, London cabbies are also said to have larger seahorses,” he said. “In short, this is interesting data to show that the pandemic may have had profound effects on adolescents, enough to be reflected in measures of brain structure; but these data cannot tell us whether long-term negative outcomes are inevitable, or whether brain plasticity will allow this generation to bounce back.

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