Pandemic stress caused premature aging in teens’ brains; long-term effect unknown

Published 4:32 pm Monday, December 12, 2022

HEATHER CLOSE

Kentucky Health News

American teenagers’ brains prematurely aged by three years during the pandemic due to the stress of lockdowns, a study has found.

The researchers found changes similar to those seen in “children who have faced chronic stress and adversity,” reports Katherine Reynolds Lewis of The Washington Post.

“The study, published Thursday in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, was the first to compare scans of the physical structures of teenagers’ brains from before and after the pandemic started, and to document significant differences, said Ian Gotlib, lead author on the paper and a psychology professor at Stanford University.”

Axios, citing Gotlib, reports, “Accelerated aging of the brain itself is not necessarily a bad thing,” and quotes him: “These are 16-, 18-year-olds. They’re not atrophying in the alarmist sense. For me, the cause for concern is their higher rates of depression and anxiety and sadness … it makes it even more important that we address that.”

Gotlib had pre-pandemic images because he and his colleagues started the work eight years ago, with the goal of “better understanding gender differences in depression rates among adolescents,” Lewis reports. “The researchers recruited 220 children ages 9 to 13, with a plan to take MRI scans of their brains every two years.”

Then the pandemic hit, interrupting the third set of scans, but presenting an opportunity. Gotlib said they knew teens had higher “levels of depression, anxiety and fearfulness” than “before the pandemic. But we knew nothing about the effects on their brains. We thought there might be effects similar to what you would find with early adversity; we just didn’t realize how strong they’d be.”

The researchers “compared MRI scans of a group of 128 children, half taken before and half at the end of the first year of the pandemic, the researchers found growth in the hippocampus and amygdala, brain areas that respectively control access to some memories and help regulate fear, stress and other emotions,” Lewis reports. “They also found thinning of the tissues in the cortex, which is involved in executive functioning. These changes happen during normal adolescent development; however, the pandemic appeared to have accelerated the process, Gotlib said.”

Premature aging of children’s brains can make them more vulnerable as adults “to depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental illnesses, they can raise the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other long-term negative outcomes,” Lewis notes. “Prior research has found dramatically higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicidality and other mental illnesses in adolescents since the onset of the pandemic.”

Gotlib said, “The takeaway for me is that there are serious issues with mental health and kids around the pandemic Just because the shutdown ended doesn’t mean we’re fine.”

Jason Chein, professor of psychology and neuroscience and the director of the Temple University Brain Research & Imaging Center, said the study is important but he “cautioned against making broad interpretations based on the changes the researchers observed,” Lewis reports. “brain regions can show nonlinear patterns of growth, so simply seeing a thinner cortex or larger amygdala volume doesn’t necessarily indicate an older brain, he said.”

But there are anecdotal examples. “Stacy Gittleman, 54, of West Bloomfield, Mich., saw the pandemic derail one of her children,” Lewis writes. “An aspiring musical theater actor, he was a junior in high school when school and theater shut down.” Gittleman said, “So much of how my son thrives depends on moving, acting, doing hands-on work and interacting with others. He spent much of his time in bed, which was very painful as parents to watch, as my son before the pandemic was so lively and social.”

While “managing his mental health will be a lifelong task, she said,” her son’s older siblings, now 24 and 26, weren’t as affected by the pandemic. “In the long term, the adversity thrown at the feet of our teenagers I believe will make them stronger and more resilient,” she said.

“Other parents aren’t so sure,” Lewis writes, quoting Meg Martin, 55, of Gaithersburg, Md., whose son intended to apply to a four-year residential college, but now feels unmotivated and disengaged from school after years of online and hybrid learning: “I really think the way his high-school years unfolded are going to have ripple effects for years to come.”