In addition to sharply increased rates of anxiety and depression, Stanford University researchers found the COVID-19 pandemic in the brains of adolescents as young as three years old, according to a study released Thursday.
In “Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Brain Maturation in Adolescents,” the group of seven researchers compared MRI scans performed on adolescents aged 15 to 18 before the pandemic to scans of the same age group made during the pandemic.
The images showed teenage brains looked almost three years older during the pandemic than before COVID.
The scans would also have shown structural changes in the brain and changes in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, concentration, learning, emotions, responsiveness and judgement.
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“Even though they were the same age, their brains looked older,” lead author Ian Gotlib, a Stanford University psychology professor, told USA Today. “It confirms the stress they have been under during the pandemic and the effects it has had, not only on their mental health but also on their brains.”
The researchers also found that adolescents had greater hippocampus and amygdala volume after the pandemic, which controls access to memories and helps modulate emotions. Reduced thickness of cortical tissue has also been reported.
Experts in the study said the impact of the changes on teens and their future is still unclear, but for now it proves that mental health disorders among teens have increased during the pandemic.
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Prior to this study, the researchers said accelerated changes in “brain age” had only been observed in children who had experienced chronic adversities such as abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination.
Dr. R. Meredith Elkins, co-director of the McLean Anxiety Management Program at McLean Hospital, told USA Today that the results of this study are not surprising to those in the clinical world.
“Since March 2020, our clinic has seen an objective increase in the severity of anxiety disorders, OCD, co-occurring depression, and risky behaviors associated with distress,” she said.
Elkins also said pediatric screening at his clinic shows about 60% of children have a recent history of self-harm or suicidal ideation.
She added that children reported that one of the biggest sources of pandemic stress was the “lack of social support and isolation during lockdowns”. Many children also felt heightened anxiety about health risks and school stress because of the sudden return to school.
“You had this 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 are really worried that they have fallen behind and that they cannot catch up.”
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Gotlib said his team of researchers plan to continue studying the same teenagers into adulthood to see if their brains continue to age earlier than expected or if they get in sync.
He also reportedly planned to study the brain structure of children who contracted COVID-19 to see if they underwent additional changes.
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Until then, Elkins said the study demonstrated the need for more resources to address the growing mental health crisis among today’s youth.
“We need more sustainable federal and public investments to increase access to mental health care for young people,” she said. “Believe our children that these issues require action.”
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