The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unpleasant experience for everyone, and while the biggest threats to public health are posed by the virus itself, new research has revealed the impact that the pandemic stress of isolation has had on the adolescent brain.
Compared to teenagers whose brains were scanned before the pandemic, those who were assessed after a long period of restrictions showed accelerated brain aging.
“We already know from global research that the pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of young people, but we didn’t know if it was causing physical changes in their brains,” said study author Ian Gotlib.
However, after comparing brain scans of 82 teenagers taken in March 2022 with those of 81 age-matched controls before the pandemic, Gotlib and his colleagues at Stanford University in the US noticed a striking trend.
Pandemic stress is changing young brains
“We found that youth assessed after experiencing pandemic isolation stress had more severe internalizing mental health problems, reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and older brain age,” the researchers write.
Typically, the hippocampus and amygdala expand in size during adolescence, while the cortex thins. The fact that this process appears to be amplified in young people who have gone through isolation indicates an alarming acceleration of their development.
“It appears, therefore, that the pandemic not only negatively affected adolescent mental health, but also accelerated brain maturation,” the researchers add, according to IFL Science.
Generally, this type of premature brain aging is only seen in children who experience chronic adversity such as neglect, violence, and family dysfunction.
And while such negative childhood experiences are associated with poorer mental health later in life, the study authors aren’t sure what impact these isolation-induced changes will have on adolescent brain architecture in the long term.
How long do these changes last?
“It is also unclear whether the changes are permanent. For a 70- or 80-year-old man, you would expect some cognitive and memory problems based on brain changes, but how does premature aging ‘translate’ to a 16-year-old?” asks Gotlib.
In addition to the physical changes seen in the adolescent brains, those assessed after seclusion also had higher rates of depression and anxiety. The study authors therefore plan to continue following the same cohort of young people in the coming years to see if the pandemic has permanently altered the trajectory of their brain development and mental health.
“Will their chronological age eventually reach ‘brain age’? If their brains remain permanently older than their chronological age, it is not clear what the results will be in the future,” concludes Gotlib.
The research was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.