In a recent Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science study, Stanford University researchers are assessing how the stress and social disruption caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has affected the neurodevelopment of young adults.
Study: Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and brain maturation in adolescents: implications for longitudinal data analysis. Image Credit: Shan_shan / Shutterstock.com
Early adversity and the developing brain
Previous research has shown that early life adversity, such as exposure to a violent environment, family dysfunction, and neglect, can accelerate brain maturation or aging in children and adolescents. Specifically, these studies reported reduced cortical thickness, which is indicative of aging, in the brains of children who experienced early adversity.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, increased social isolation and the transition to almost entirely remote learning environments have led many young adults and children to experience significant adversity. These new challenges come with increased financial stress, exposure to domestic violence, and the potential adverse effects of infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the agent responsible for COVID-19.
We already know from global research that the pandemic has had adverse effects on young people’s mental health, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was physically doing to their brains.
About the study
A total of 163 adolescents were included in the current study, of which 103 were women. Each study participant self-reported their depressive symptoms using the ten-point version of the Childhood Depression Inventory. Participants’ anxiety symptoms were also assessed using the social anxiety and physical symptom subscales of the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children (MASC).
In addition to self-reported mental health symptoms, a subset of the study cohort also provided magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains to obtain cortical thickness and subcortical measurements. These values were used to calculate Brain Age Gap Estimation (BrainAGE) values for all study participants through the use of a gender-specific machine learning-based model developed by the ENIGMA-Brain Age working group.
Importantly, participants in the “peri-COVID” group, which included adolescents who experienced COVID-19 shutdowns, were matched by age, gender, puberty, exposure to early stress, and socioeconomic status at a “pre-COVID” group.
Teenage brains are aging rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic
By comparing the frequency and intensity of self-reported mental health symptoms, the researchers found that the peri-COVID group was more likely to report severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and internalizing issues compared to the pre-COVID group. -COVID. However, there was no difference between the two groups in their frequency of externalizing problems.
Analysis of MRI scans demonstrated that participants in the peri-COVID group had reduced bilateral cortical thickness, as well as larger bilateral hippocampus and amygdala volumes. Additionally, the peri-COVID group was found to have higher BrainAGE than the pre-COVID group.
These neuroanatomical differences indicate that the brains of adolescents who experienced COVID-19 lockdowns aged at a much faster rate compared to their peers who were assessed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, larger positive BrainAGE measurements indicated that the brains in the peri-COVID group also appeared older.
It’s unclear whether the changes in brain structure observed by the Stanford team are related to changes in mental health. It’s also unclear if the changes are permanent.
The results of the current study are significant, as they indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict public health measures that have been implemented in order to protect public health have caused significant damage to both health mental and neuroanatomical development in adolescents. These unique changes may also prevent today’s adolescent brains from being comparable to those previously obtained from their peers just a few years ago.
Future studies are needed to determine whether these changes are temporary or may have long-term effects on the developing brain. If these alterations persist, future studies should take into account the abnormal rate of brain growth observed in this generation.
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