The following is excerpted from an online article posted by StudyFinds.
Stress from the COVID-19 pandemic led to teenagers’ brains physically aging faster, new research reveals. Stanford University scientists report that pandemic-related stressors have literally altered the brain structure of adolescents, making them appear several years older in comparison to their peers prior to the global health crisis.
In 2020 alone, the study notes that reports of anxiety and depression among adults skyrocketed by over 25 percent. The new findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, reveal that the neurological and mental health impact of COVID on teenagers may have been even worse.
“We already know from global research that the pandemic has adversely affected mental health in youth, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was doing physically to their brains,” says first author Ian Gotlib, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology in the School of Humanities & Sciences, in a media release.
Gotlib explains that changes in brain structure occur naturally as people age. During puberty and early teenage years, adolescents experience increased growth in both the hippocampus and the amygdala.
By comparing MRI scans from 163 children performed before and during the pandemic, Prof. Gotlib’s study discovered that this developmental process sped up among teenagers who experienced COVID-19 lockdowns.
Until now, accelerated changes in “brain age” have only appeared in children dealing with “chronic adversity” — such as violence or neglect. Prof. Gotlib says that although those experiences have a connection to poor mental health outcomes later in life, it’s still unclear if the changes in brain structure during the pandemic will have the same effect. “It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” adds Gotlib, the director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory.
“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?”