How the pandemic has aged teen brains

How the pandemic has aged teen brains

Illustration of a brain as a low battery icon.

Artwork: Allie Carl/Axios

According to a Stanford University study, the stress of living through the pandemic has physically altered the brains of adolescents and prematurely aged them by at least three or four years.

Why is it important: While the behavioral effects of the pandemic are well documented, data on the neurodevelopment of young people is scarce.

What they found: In a comparison of 163 adolescent MRIs, half of which were taken before the pandemic and half after, the “after” group showed accelerated signs of aging commonly seen in abused and neglected children.

  • A 16-year-old girl’s brain could be the equivalent of a pre-COVID 19- or 20-year-old, with an enlarged hippocampus – thought to be the center of memory and learning – and amygdala , which processes emotions.
  • The young people studied were also more likely to report severe anxiety, depression and internalized mental health issues.

The study started eight years ago, with the initial aim of understanding why teenage girls have higher rates of depression than boys of the same age.

  • The researchers first looked at the effects of early stress on younger brains and clinical outcomes such as anxiety and suicidal ideation, with the plan to bring in the same participants every two years, four times.
  • COVID halted research midway through graduate school for 10 months — putting a dent in the initial schedule, said Ian Gotlib, the study’s lead author and a Stanford professor of psychology.
  • So they decided to test if the participants were the same as before the pandemic, Gotlib told Axios. “And it turns out they’re not.”

Yes, but: Accelerated brain aging itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Gotlib, who pointed to troubling behavioral health issues.

  • The researchers will follow these participants again in two years to see if aging continues to accelerate or if the phenomenon slows down with fewer pandemic stressors. It’s too early to know, Gotlib said.
  • “They are 16, 18 year olds. They are not atrophying in an alarmist sense,” Gotlib told Axios. “For me, the cause of concern is their higher rates of depression, anxiety and sadness…it makes it even more important that we address this.”

Between the lines: School closures and separation from peers during the pandemic have created a toxic form of stress for teens, said John Richardson-Lauve, director of mental health at ChildSavers, a nonprofit focused on therapy holding trauma account for children in low-income areas.

  • This can lead to a person having less control over their amygdala, which will trigger a fight-or-flight response in traumatic situations, Richardson-Lauve said.

  • As for the hippocampus, experiencing adversity may mean processing memories differently and in nonlinear ways as a form of adaptation.
  • While the brain has the ability to heal and bounce back, we can never erase the events of the trauma from the experience,” Richardson-Lauve said. “Things never go back to normal after bad things. It’s kind of a myth.

To note : Multiple factors influence how young people with mental health issues cope with adulthood, said Randy Auerbach, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University who studies depression and suicide in adolescents.

  • Outcomes depend on a person’s access to quality health care, their openness to treatment, and the availability of that treatment.
  • There is also a critical shortage of behavioral health workers to meet service needs, according to a report by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation in October.

And after: Gotlib said the researchers were looking to compare brain scans of teenagers infected with COVID to those who weren’t expected to identify the changes.

  • In the study, scans of 10 subjects who contracted the virus looked worse than those of uninfected subjects, Gotlib said.
  • But even when these young people were excluded from the study, the physiological aging observed in the adolescents studied did not change.

The bottom line: “I don’t know how far these effects will go,” Gotlib said, but “they’re here now, for sure.”

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