Pandemic stress physically altered adolescent brains: study

Pandemic stress physically altered adolescent brains: study

The story at a glance

  • Stanford researchers have compared brain scans of young people from before the coronavirus pandemic to during the pandemic.

  • They found that the brains of teenagers who lived through the pandemic had a very different brain structure.

  • This could be due to the trauma and adversity suffered due to the pandemic.

Living through the coronavirus pandemic has physically altered the brains of young adults, a new study indicates.

In a study published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, researchers based at Stanford University compare the brain structures of adolescents who lived through the pandemic to those assessed before the pandemic.

The team had access to the brain assessments of 81 pre-pandemic adolescents. They compared these results to MRI scans of 82 young adults who have lived through the pandemic.

This latter group may have been exposed to various types of trauma during the pandemic and early shutdown, including financial hardship, physical health threats, and exposure to increased domestic violence.

The researchers found that the brains of pandemic youth were physically older than those of their same-sex and age peers who had been scanned before the pandemic. The changes could also be seen as similar to the brains of people who experienced significant childhood adversity. This suggests that the developmental process was accelerated in these individuals.

“Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns not only had more severe internalized mental health issues, but also had reduced cortical thickness, greater hippocampal and amygdala volume, and older brain age. says first author Ian Gotlib, who is the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology at Stanford’s School of Humanities & Sciences, in a press release.

The team also assessed participants’ mental health, anxiety and depression. The COVID group reported more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, and internalizing issues than the pre-pandemic group.

The mental health of people of all ages, but especially young people, has suffered during the pandemic. The United States Surgeon General issued an advisory on the subject of the crisis in youth mental health almost a year ago, stressing the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential component of overall health and “empower young people and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.

This study provides insight into the possible biological changes that may occur as a result of pandemic stress. “We already know from global research that the pandemic has had adverse effects on young people’s mental health, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was physically doing to their brains,” Gotlib says.

Although this study offers some insight, however, much remains unknown about what might be going on in child and adolescent development. The data from this study was originally intended to be a longitudinal study, where brain scans were compared to previous scans of the same individual. This would provide a clearer indication of what has physically changed in the brain structures of young adults.

“Adolescence is already a time of rapid brain reorganization, and it’s already linked to increased rates of mental health problems, depression, and risky behaviors,” says Jonas Miller, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Gotlib’s lab. during the study and is now an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, according to the press release.

“Now you have this global event happening where everyone is experiencing some kind of adversity in the form of disruption to their daily routines – so it may be that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today today is not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago,” continued Miller.

The authors also note that it is unclear if the changes are permanent. “Will their chronological age eventually catch up with their “brain age”? If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it is unclear what the results will be in the future,” says Gotlib.

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