Pandemic Stress Aged Teen Brains


Closeup of a CT scan with brain and skull. | Image by Shutterstock

Researchers at Stanford University say that an uptick in anxiety and depression has caused teenagers’ brains to age by nearly three years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their study analyzed the MRI scans of teens aged 15 through 18. Readings were taken both before and during the pandemic.

Data collection began eight years ago when the team started conducting MRI scans on a group of children ages 9 to 13. Scans repeated every 24 months until the pandemic paused research before it resumed at the end of 2020.

The delay prompted the researchers to investigate the impact the stress of lockdowns had on kids’ brains by comparing two sets of MRI scans. Both groups were the same demographic — age, sex, and socioeconomic status, among others — but the first set of scans was taken before the pandemic, while the second set was taken at the end of 2020.

The group assessed after the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic “had more severe internalizing mental health problems, reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age,” according to the study.

While it is known that brain age can accelerate in children exposed to chronic adversity, like violence and neglect, this is the first-time data have been used to test the impact of pandemic stress on the accelerated aging of developing brains.

Dr. R. Meredith Elkins, program co-director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital, was not surprised by the results. Her clinic has experienced “an objective increase in the severity of anxiety disorder, OCD, co-occurring depression and risk-related behaviors associated with distress” since March 2020, she said.

Dr. Elkins said that inadequate social support coupled with isolating lockdowns was a significant source of stress for children. Anxiety over health concerns from daily pandemic headlines exacerbated the issues. Challenging remote schooling, sometimes rushed to account for lost time, further compounded the problem.

“You had this period of relative ease academically and then all of a sudden [the] kids are back to school and the demands are ramped up. … They have real concerns that they’ve fallen behind and can’t catch up,” said Dr. Elkins.

The lead author of the study, Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford University, told USA Today that he and his team intend to expand the research. The researchers plan to study the same teenage brains as they progress through young adulthood to see if the rapid aging persists.

Gotlib plans to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the brains of children who have contracted it, as well.

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