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Pandemic Stress May Have Physically Changed Teens’ Brains, Study Finds

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused teenagers’ brains to age faster than normal, a new study suggests.

The report, published last week in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, explored whether pandemic life was associated with any physical alterations to teens’ brains. It actually came out of a larger study of brain development among 220 children ages 9 through 13 that was interrupted by COVID-19. When participants were finally able to return to the research facility for brain scans after a year-long break, the team took it as an opportunity to investigate any pandemic-related changes.

To do this, researchers compared MRI scans from 128 different children, which were paired up based on demographic similarities. Half were taken before the pandemic; the other half were captured at the end of 2020.

What researchers found was remarkable: The brains of children who had lived through the first year of the pandemic showed markers of aging beyond their chronological age. Specifically, these kids and teens exhibited growth in areas of the brain called the amygdala, which regulates our fear and stress responses, and the hippocampus, which controls how and when we access our memories. They also showed thinning in the cortex, which governs executive function.

Children’s brains grow naturally as they age. However, these changes — in particular, the brain age-chronological age mismatch — are in line with previous research into the brains of children who experienced adversity early in life.

Researchers also asked participants about their mental health. Unsurprisingly, children who were polled at the end of 2020 reported more severe cases of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty regulating their emotions.

“This was just a one-year shutdown, so we didn’t know that the effects on the brain would be this pronounced after that short a period of stress,” Ian Gotlib, a psychology professor at Stanford University and the study’s lead author, told CNN. “It tracks with the mental health difficulties that we’re seeing.”

At this point, it is unclear whether these pandemic-related neurobiological effects will have implications later in life. Researchers also aren’t sure whether children who had COVID-19 exhibited more drastic brain changes, although they plan to investigate this further.

One thing is for certain, though: The pandemic has been incredibly taxing on children and teens. Numerous studies have linked this global public health crisis to psychological and behavioral changes in American youth, such as widespread anxiety and depression and increases in vaping. Many youth are also struggling to keep up in school.

“Be sure that your adolescent or your teen is getting any help that he or she, that they, might need if they’re experiencing symptoms of depression [or] anxiety,” Gotlib added.

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