Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’? What If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age?

According to Stanford University research, pandemic pressures have physically affected teenagers’ brains, making them seem several years older than their classmates before the epidemic.

The findings of the study were presented in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science today.

The prevalence of reported cases of adult anxiety and depression increased by almost 25% in 2020 alone, compared to the preceding years.

New research shows that the effects of the pandemic on the brain and mental health of teenagers may have been even worse.

Ian Gotlib, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology in the School of Humanities & Sciences and the paper’s first author, says: “We already know from global research that the pandemic has adversely affected youth mental health, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was doing physically to their brains.”

Brain shape changes naturally with aging. During puberty and the first few years of adolescence, both the hippocampus and the amygdala grow more. These are parts of the brain that control access to certain memories and help to control emotions, respectively. At the same time, the tissues in the cortex, a part of the brain that helps with decision-making, get thinner.

Gotlib’s study compared MRI scans of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic. This showed that this process of development moved faster in teenagers during the COVID-19 lockdowns. He says that until now, these kinds of fast changes in “brain age” have only been seen in children who have had long-term problems, such as violence, neglect, family problems, or a mix of these things.

It’s not obvious if the changes in brain structure that the Stanford scientists found are connected to changes in mental health, Gotlib said, even though such events are associated with poor mental health outcomes later in life.

“It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” remarks Gotlib.

“Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’? If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it’s unclear what the outcomes will be in the future. For a 70- or 80-year-old, you’d expect some cognitive and memory problems based on changes in the brain, but what does it mean for a 16-year-old if their brains are aging prematurely?”

According to Gotlib, his team initially didn’t plan to investigate how COVID-19 affected brain anatomy. Before the pandemic, his lab had gathered a group of kids and teens from the San Francisco Bay Area to take part in a long-term study on depression during puberty. But when the pandemic hit, he couldn’t give those kids their regularly scheduled MRI scans.

“Then, nine months later, we had a hard restart,” Gotlib adds.

Once Gotlib’s cohort’s brain scans could be continued, the research was behind schedule by a year. It would be reasonable to account for the time lag in the statistical analysis of the study’s data under normal conditions; but, the pandemic was everything from normal. 

“That technique only works if you assume the brains of 16-year-olds today are the same as the brains of 16-year-olds before the pandemic with respect to cortical thickness and hippocampal and amygdala volume,” Gotlib adds. “After looking at our data, we realized that they’re not. Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns not only had more severe internalizing mental health problems, but also had reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age.”

These results could have significant repercussions for other longitudinal studies that have been conducted during the duration of the epidemic. If the kids who lived through the pandemic have unusually fast brain growth, scientists will have to take that into account in any future studies that involve this generation.

“The pandemic is a global phenomenon – there’s no one who hasn’t experienced it,” says Gotlib. “There’s no real control group.”

Co-author 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, said that these results could also have serious long-term effects on a whole generation of teenagers.

“Adolescence is already a period of rapid reorganization in the brain, and it’s already linked to increased rates of mental health problems, depression, and risk-taking behavior,” Miller adds. “Now you have this global event that’s happening, where everyone is experiencing some kind of adversity in the form of disruption to their daily routines – so it might be the case that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today are not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago.”

In the future, Gotlib wants to keep track of the same group of kids through late adolescence and young adulthood to see if the COVID pandemic has changed how their brains develop over time. He also wants to keep an eye on the teens’ mental health and compare the structure of the brains of those who were infected with the virus to those who weren’t. The goal is to find any small changes that may have happened.

Image Credit: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images


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