A research study out of Stanford University and published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science has concluded that stress during the pandemic caused structures in teenagers’ brains to age more rapidly than teens’ brains did before the pandemic.
“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,” said Ian Gotlib, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology in the School of Humanities & Sciences, who is the first author on the paper.
The faster rate of change in certain brain structures, specifically the amygdala and hippocampus, which temper the emotional response to stressful stimuli, was noted in brain scans of more than 150 adolescents. Unfortunately, since everyone experienced the stress of the pandemic, there was no control group for the study.
But comparing the brain changes seen in subjects with those of comparable adolescents before the pandemic has revealed a discomforting trend: Before the pandemic, changes this early in life were common only in kids who had experienced high levels of stress or trauma.
“Adolescence is already a period of rapid reorganization in the brain, and it’s already linked to increased rates of mental health problems, depression, and risk-taking behavior,” said the study’s co-author Jonas Miller, who worked in Dr Gotlib’s lab during the study. “Now you have this global event that’s happening, where everyone is experiencing some kind of adversity in the form of disruption to their daily routines—so it might be the case that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today are not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago.”
Researchers aren’t sure whether the early aging is temporary and might last only until the pandemic’s effects wane or enduring in today’s adolescents. “It is important that we continue to follow and assess individuals who were recruited and assessed prior to the pandemic; this type of research offers the strongest possibility for us to examine the effects of a major stressor experienced on a global scale.”