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Ema Stanovská
December 11, 2022, 7:00pm
Reading time: 2:03

Teenage Brains Aged Several Years During The Pandemic, New Research Suggests

The brains of adolescents after the lockdown showed signs typical of older people or those who experienced violence or neglect in childhood.

Ema Stanovská
December 11, 2022, 7:00pm
Reading time: 2:03
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Research by scientists from Stanford University in the United States found that the pandemic hit teenagers much more seriously than we thought. The new findings suggest that the stress related to the pandemic not only affected their mental health, but also physically changed their brains.


The brain structures of teenagers appear to be several years older than their peers before the pandemic, according to a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.


The researchers compared pre-pandemic MRI scans of the brains of 81 adolescents with images taken during the "lockdown period" from October 2020 to March 2022.

They found that compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, those assessed after the lockdown not only had more severe psychological problems, but also a thinner cerebral cortex, larger hippocampus and amygdala volume, and an older brain. According to scientists, their brain basically aged prematurely.

The brains of these adolescents after the lockdown showed signs typical of older people or those who experienced significant adversity in childhood.


The original goal of the research was different

The researchers didn't really set out to study the brains of teenagers before and after covid. The children were originally part of a long-term study on the incidence of depression during puberty. After the arrival of covid, researchers could not perform regular magnetic resonance examinations. When the situation improved, they realized that they couldn't just pick up where they left off.


"There was already this big gap. We couldn't make the assumption that the children were the same as before the pandemic because we weren't sure if that was the case," Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study, told Euronews.

"We knew that the incidence of depression, anxiety and sadness in children increased after the lockdown. But we didn't know if their brains had changed. And they changed," adds the scientist.


Aging as a stress response

According to scientists, until now, these accelerated changes in "brain age" have only appeared in children who have personally encountered, for example, violence, neglect or dysfunction in the family. We still don't know much about what these changes in the brain mean, or whether they can be permanent.

Scientists believe that this may speed up the biological aging process. But Jonas Miller, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, says that adolescent brains are still flexible and can adapt and change relatively easily. "Brain aging" may just be an adaptation to the stress of the pandemic, and once that stress subsides, aging will slow down.


“You can't directly change the brain, but you can certainly change depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. And I think that's really important," said Ian Gotlib. "I believe that if we begin to treat mental health, we will begin to normalize or even slow the progression of changes in the brain."


Researchers will scan the teenagers' brains again when they reach their 20s. They also plan to track their mental health and compare the brain structure of those who were infected with the virus to those who were not.

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