Research has shown the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted teenage mental health, exacerbating rates of anxiety and depression. But a new study found it may have also aged their brains by a few years.
Researchers from Stanford University analyzed MRI scans taken from people 15 to 18 years old before the pandemic and compared them with scans from their peers taken during the pandemic.
The new scans showed teens' brains looked about three years older than those of their pre-COVID counterparts, according to the study published Thursday in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.
“Even though they were age-matched, their brains looked older,” said lead author Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford University. “It confirms the stress that they experienced during the pandemic and the effects that they have had, not only on their mental health but on their brain, as well.”
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Scans also showed structural changes in the brain, researchers noted, as well as changes to parts of the brain responsible for memory, concentration, learning, emotion, reactivity and judgement.
They found adolescents assessed after the pandemic had larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and reduced thickness of cortex tissue. The hippocampus and amygdala control access to memories and help modulate emotions, experts say, while cortex tissues involve executive functioning.
It’s unclear how these structural changes in the brain will impact teens and what it means for their future, experts say, but it serves as quantitative evidence supporting higher rates of mental health disorders among teens since pandemic.
“The hippocampus is our center of learning and memory and is also the center that controls mood, anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, child neurologist at Texas Children’s Hospital and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, who was unaffiliated with the study. It may have been more active during the pandemic, leading to an increase in size, she added.
Until now, research has only found accelerated changes in “brain age” among children who experienced chronic adversity like violence, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination of factors, according to study authors.
“Regrettably, the results of this new brain-based study are not surprising to folks in the clinical world,” said Dr. R. Meredith Elkins, program co-director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital. “Since March 2020, our clinic has seen an objective increase in the severity of anxiety disorder, OCD, co-occurring depression and risk-related behaviors associated with distress."
Pediatric screening at her clinic shows about 60% of children report a history self-injury or suicidal ideation, she said, often within the past few years.
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One of the biggest sources of pandemic stress was lack of social support and isolation during the lockdowns, Elkins said. She also sees many kids reporting heightened anxiety over health risks and academic stress from the sudden return to school.
“You had this period of relative ease academically and then all of a sudden kids are back to school and the demands are ramped up,” she said. “They have real concerns that they’ve fallen behind and can’t catch up.”
Children and teens were also more exposed to significant economic challenges, racial injustice and social unrest during isolation, Elkins said.
Gotlib and his team plans to continue following the same cohort of teens through young adulthood to see if their brains keep aging or sync back up. He also plans to study the brain structure of kids who were infected by the coronavirus to see if any additional changes occurred.
In the meantime, Elkins said the study further emphasizes the need to allocate more resources toward the growing youth mental health crisis.
“We need more sustainable federal and public investment to increase mental health care access for youth,” she said. “Believe our kids that these issues require action.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: During COVID, teen's brains aged faster from stress, study finds