Scans Show How Pandemic Changed Teenage Brains

Researchers find young brains aged more than they would have during shutdown
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 3, 2022 5:45 PM CST
Scans Show How Pandemic Changed Teenage Brains
Freshman Hugo Bautista eats lunch separated from classmates by plastic dividers at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan., on March 31, 2021, the first day of resumed in-person learning.   (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The toll the pandemic shutdown took on teenagers has been documented before, but now a study has reported the changes it's made to young brains. The researchers had taken MRI scans of 220 children ages 9 to 13 eight years ago, intending to take new scans every two years in a study about depression. After the pandemic arrived, the team switched to trying to learn about the effects of the shutdown and other strains on young brains, CNN reports. The subjects were matched up by demographics, and the pre-pandemic scans of 128 children were compared with scans taken at the end of 2020. The study was published Thursday in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.

The Stanford University researchers found that children who had lived through the first year of the pandemic had brain ages beyond their chronological age: The brains had aged faster than they would have otherwise. Researchers saw growth in the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates fear and stress, and in the hippocampus, which controls access to memories. In the cortex, which controls executive functioning, tissues had thinned. "This was just a one-year shutdown, so we didn’t know that the effects on the brain would be this pronounced," said lead author Ian Gotlib, a psychology professor at Stanford, adding, "It tracks with the mental health difficulties that we're seeing." A child's brain changes naturally over time, and previous research found that adversity can speed that up.

Gotlib's researchers intend to follow the teenagers as they become young adults to see if their brains age at the same rate. And they'll study whether young people who contracted COVID-19 had physical changes to their brains. An outside expert also said the findings agree with her experience, per USA Today. "Since March 2020, our clinic has seen an objective increase in the severity of anxiety disorder, OCD, co-occurring depression and risk-related behaviors associated with distress," said Dr. R. Meredith Elkins. She said investment to expand mental health care for young people is needed. "Believe our kids that these issues require action." (Read more medical study stories.)

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