Friday, February 03, 2023
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Research Study Finds Pandemic Experience Altered Brain Development in Youth



As one of the latest scientific examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic — or, more specifically, America’s collective response to the pandemic — has adversely affected our younger generations, a team of researchers at Stanford University has found evidence the pandemic experience may have caused the brains of teens to age several years more than typical.

Led by Ian Gotlib, a clinical neuroscientist at Stanford University, this study was published December 1 in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science and marks the first effort to analyze the impact of the pandemic on brain aging.

When comparing the brain scans of young people from before and after 2020, Gotlib and his fellow researchers found the brains of teens who lived through the pandemic looked about three years older than expected.

The pandemic “hasn’t been bad just in terms of mental health for adolescents,” said Gotlib. “It seems to have altered their brains as well.”

Although the study can’t connect the identified brain changes to poor mental health during the pandemic, “we know there is a relationship between adversity and the brain as it tries to adapt to what it’s been given,” said  Beatriz Luna, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. “I think this is a very important study that sets the ball rolling for us to look at this.”

The pandemic experience hit during a crucial period of brain development in the lives of many young people, subjecting them  to intense stressors such as online schooling, ongoing social isolation, economic hardships and large numbers of COVID-related fatalities.

Gotlib and his colleagues launched a project in California’s Bay Area to study depression in adolescents about 10 years ago. It was for that earlier research project that researchers conducted MRI scans of the young participants’ brains.

Lockdown orders in the spring of 2020 forced the researchers to halt the depression project. When the research resumed a year later, Gotlib discovered the kids who returned to continue the depression study reported higher rates of anxiety and depression than their peers from before 2020. As such, the study team decided to compare brain scans captured before the start of the pandemic with scans taken between October 2020 and March 2022.

The scientific team looked at differences in 64 scans from each group, matched by the kids’ sex and age, with the average age of about 16 in each group.

The results were “striking,” said Gotlib, who explained adolescent brains naturally go through a maturation process that results in the thickening of the hippocampus, an area involved with memory and concentration, and the amygdala, which regulates emotional processing. At about the same time, the brain’s cortex — an area that regulates emotional functioning — begins to thin.

The brain scans of those who had just gone through the pandemic experience showed the brain maturation process had moved more quickly.

Exactly how and why the pandemic affected the teens’ brains is unclear, suggested Joan Luby, a child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, but the study does indicate “that the pandemic has had a material impact on brain maturation.”
Gotlib believes stress has a lot to do with the atypical maturation processes. While previous studies have shown exposure to violence or negligence can lead to accelerated brain maturation in children, mental health plummeted for teens during the pandemic, according to a Science News report in September 2022. So, “it’s not a big leap.” Gotlib said, to think that the stressful conditions could also have shaped brain development in his study’s participants.

Even though what caused the alterations and what implications they pose still need to be answered, ensuring that people have access to mental health services will be crucial to helping children who lived — are still living — through the pandemic, Gotlib said.

“These kids are hurting,” he said. “We need to take that seriously and make sure we’re offering them treatment.”