Teenage brains age faster in first year of pandemic, stress may be to blame, study suggests


During the Covid-19 pandemic, the brains of American teens underwent physiological changes, aging faster than normal, according to a new study.

Younger study participants also reported more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, and what scientists call internalizing problems — significance After the first year of the pandemic, they experience sadness, low self-esteem and fear, and difficulty regulating emotions.

many of study The mental health of teens has been found to have suffered during the pandemic. They were taken away from school, away from their friends and familiar support structures, and had to live with the uncertainty and fear of coronavirus. Many parents lost their jobs. millions of children Lost parents and grandparents to Covid-19.

Research, published on thursday In the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, he was one of the first to study the physical changes in the brain that come with stress and anxiety.

The research comes from a larger study in which scientists sought to understand gender differences in depression among adolescents.

Eight years ago, they instituted a program to perform MRI scans on 220 children ages 9 to 13 every two years. The team had completed two sets of scans when the pandemic interrupted their research, and they won’t be able to start scanning again until the end of 2020.

When their research was interrupted, the team decided it would be interesting to study the effects of such stressful events on children’s brain development. A pre-pandemic scan will help them make that comparison.

The researchers matched children with the same demographic characteristics — including gender, age, stress exposure and socioeconomic status.

To find the average age of the brain, they passed MRI scans through a phantom Pool data from other scans.

The researchers compared MRI scans of 128 children. Half of the scans were performed before the pandemic and the other half in late 2020.

They found that the brains of children who lived through the first year of the pandemic were older than their actual age.

Brains that lived through the early stages of the pandemic showed growth in an area that helps regulate fear and stress, called the amygdala, and the hippocampus, an area of ​​the brain that controls memory access. The part of the brain that controls executive functions, known as the cortex, has thinned tissue.

Children’s brains naturally change over time, but studies have found that these physical changes are accelerated when a person experiences significant adversity in childhood.

study already shown People who experience violence, neglect, poverty and family problems early in life have faster brain aging and may develop mental health problems later in life.

Ian Gotlib, lead author of the new study, said the research team had expected to find problems with anxiety, depression and internalizing problems. “The pandemic is not good for the mental health of teens,” said Gotlib, a psychology professor at Stanford University.

But they weren’t sure what they’d find with the MRI scan.

“It’s always fun to do research like this when you’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Gotlib said. “These effects are interesting, and happen very quickly.

“It was just a year off, so we didn’t know the effects on the brain would be so pronounced after a brief period of stress,” he added. “It tracks the mental health issues we’re seeing.”

What’s unclear, he said, is whether the changes in the brain have consequences later in life. The team plans to scan the same children at a later date to track their brain development. It’s possible their brain changes were just an immediate response to a stressor that returned to normal over time, he said.

The team also plans to look at the 10 children in the study with Covid-19 to see if there are different effects. Physical differences appear to be “more pronounced” in children with Covid, Gotlib said.

Dr. Max Wiznitzer, chief of triage in the Department of Pediatric Neurology at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, said the changes in the brain are interesting, but what matters is whether the mental health problem persists.

“Anatomy doesn’t matter. What matters is function,” said Wiznitzer, who was not involved in the study. “The clinical consequences here are the functional impact, the clinical mental health condition and how it works and how you deal with it.”

Problems such as anxiety or depression can be addressed with appropriate mental health interventions. Wiznitzer added: “The brain has the ability to reorganize — or improve, if you prefer.”

Gotlib wants parents and guardians to bear in mind that while the lockdown and school closures may be over, the mental health effects may linger.

“Make sure your teen or your teen is getting any help he or she may need if he or she is experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or withdrawal.”

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