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Study: COVID-19 pandemic stress caused teen brains to age by several years

The brains of teenagers aged prematurely by at least three years during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published Thursday.

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Authors of the study said the premature aging in the brains of the teenagers was similar to that seen in children who face chronic stress.

According to Ian Gotlib, lead author of the study published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, it was suspected that teens today had higher “levels of depression, anxiety and fearfulness” than before the pandemic.

“But we knew nothing about the effects on their brains,” Gotlib, a psychology professor at Stanford University, said. “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 study looked at MRI scans of a group of 128 children. Half of the scans were taken up to eight years before the pandemic began in March 2020, and the other half at the end of the first year of the pandemic.

Researchers say they found growth in areas of the brain that control access to some memories, and help regulate fear and stress.

What they also found, Gotlib said, was the tissues in the brain’s cortex had thinned, something that is normal during adolescent years, but the thinning seemed to be at an accelerated rate.

The cortex helps control the executive function of the brain. Executive functioning enables people to plan, focus, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

According to Gotlib, the accelerated changes in the brain have only been seen before in children who faced chronic abuse or neglect.

“It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” said Gotlib, the director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology Laboratory.

“Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age?’ If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it’s unclear what the outcomes will be in the future.

“For a 70- or 80-year-old, you’d expect some cognitive and memory problems based on changes in the brain, but what does it mean for a 16-year-old if their brains are aging prematurely?” Gotlib asked.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

Gotlib said he believes the pandemic may leave a lasting mark on developing teens who went through the lockdowns associated with the virus.

“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.”