Teenage brains are aging faster than normal due to pandemic stress, study finds

Teenage brains are aging faster than normal due to pandemic stress, study finds


The stress of pandemic shutdowns prematurely aged the brains of adolescents by at least three years and similar to changes seen in children who faced chronic stress and adversity, a study has found.

The study, published Thursday in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, was the first to compare analyzes of the physical structures of adolescent brains from before and after the start of the pandemic, and to document significant differences, a said Ian Gotlib, lead author of the article. and professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Researchers knew that teenagers had higher “levels of depression, anxiety and fear” than “before the pandemic”. But we didn’t know anything about the effects on their brains,” said Gotlib, director of Stanford’s Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology Laboratory. “We thought there might be effects similar to what you would find with early adversity; we just didn’t know how strong they would be.

By comparing MRIs of a group of 128 children, half taken before and half taken at the end of the first year of the pandemic, the researchers found growth in the hippocampus and amygdala, areas of the brain that respectively control access to certain memories and help regulate fear. , stress and other emotions.

They also found tissue thinning in the cortex, which is involved in executive functioning. These changes occur during normal adolescent development; however, the pandemic appears to have accelerated the process, Gotlib said.

The premature aging of children’s brains is not a positive development. Before the pandemic, it was seen in cases of chronic childhood stress, trauma, abuse and neglect. These negative childhood experiences not only make people more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental illnesses, but they can also increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other long-term negative outcomes.

The pre-pandemic images of teenage brains come from a longitudinal study that Gotlib’s team began eight years ago, with the initial goal of better understanding gender differences in rates of depression among teens. . The researchers recruited 220 children aged 9 to 13, with the intention of having MRIs of their brains every two years. As they collected the third round of scans, the pandemic shut down all in-person research at Stanford, preventing scientists from collecting brain scan data from March 2020 until the end of this year.

As they debated how to explain the disruption, the scientists saw an opportunity to investigate a different question: how the pandemic itself may have impacted the physical structure of children’s brains and their health. mental. They matched pairs of children of the same age and gender, creating subgroups with similar puberty, socioeconomic status, and exposure to childhood stress. “It allowed us to compare 16-year-olds before the pandemic with different 16-year-olds assessed after the pandemic,” Gotlib said.

To determine the average brain age of their samples, the researchers fed their brain scans into a machine learning model for predicting brain age developed by the ENIGMA-Brain Age Working Group, a collaboration between scientists who put share their brain image datasets. They also assessed the mental health symptoms reported by the matched pairs. They found more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and internalizing issues in the group that had experienced the pandemic.

“For me, the takeaway is that there are serious mental health issues and children around the pandemic,” Gotlib said. “Just because the shutdown is over doesn’t mean we’re fine.”

Previous research has found significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicidality and other mental illnesses among teens since the pandemic began.

The current study has important implications for other longitudinal imaging studies of the adolescent brain, said Jason Chein, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Temple University Brain Research & Imaging Center. “This has both methodological implications and potentially relevant societal implications,” Chein said.

Longitudinal developmental studies that cover the pandemic can yield results that are tainted by psychosocial impacts, making it impossible to draw general conclusions about development, Chein said. And for society, the implications are that adolescents and young adults may need ongoing, long-term mental health and other support, as this cohort may not be as advanced as expected based solely on their chronological age.

He cautioned, however, against any broad interpretation based on the changes observed by researchers. “It’s quite interesting that they’ve seen this change,” he said. “But I’m hesitant to then jump to the conclusion that what this signals to us is that somehow we’ve advanced the brain maturation of children.” In particular, brain regions can show nonlinear growth patterns, so just seeing thinner cortex or larger amygdala volume doesn’t necessarily indicate an older brain, he said. .

Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, noted that many people experience post-traumatic growth after a stressful experience. “The researchers are to be commended for the hard work to get this data,” Siegel said. “You want to ask the larger question, how is the brain remodeling process affected?”

“This is a useful initial study,” agreed David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. “I expect the results to inform the design of future research initiatives.”

In the article, the authors acknowledge that they don’t yet know if the physical brain changes will persist. They plan to take another round of scans at the next scheduled two-year point and continue to collect data on study participants.

Stacy Gittleman, 54, of West Bloomfield, Michigan, saw the pandemic derail one of her children. A budding musical theater actor, he was a junior in high school when the school and theater closed. “A big part of how my son thrives is through movement, action, hands-on work, and interacting with others,” Gittleman said. “He spent a lot of his time in bed, which was very painful for parents to watch because my son before the pandemic was so lively and social.”

Managing her mental health will be a lifelong task, she said, noting that her older siblings, now 24 and 26, weren’t feeling as much of an impact. “In the long run, the adversity thrown at our teenagers’ feet, I believe, will make them stronger and more resilient,” she said.

Other parents are not so sure. Meg Martin, 55, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, thinks it’s too early to tell if the teenagers will get back on track. Her son, now a senior in high school, had previously intended to apply to a four-year residential college, but after years of online and hybrid learning, he feels unmotivated and disengaged from school.

“I really think the way his high school years went will have ripple effects for years to come,” Martin said.

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