Well-Being Mental Health

Pandemic stress physically changed adolescents’ brains: study

Brains of youth who lived through the pandemic looked more biologically aged compared to brains of age- and sex-matched people who were assessed pre-pandemic.
doctor looking at screens displaying MRI brain scans

Story at a glance

  • Researchers at Stanford compared brain scans of youth from before the coronavirus pandemic to scans taken during the pandemic.

  • They found that the brains of adolescents who experienced the pandemic had significantly different brain structure.

  • This could be due to trauma and adversity experienced due to the pandemic.

A new study indicates that living through the coronavirus pandemic has physically changed the brains of young adults.

In a study published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, researchers based out of Stanford University compare brain structures of adolescents who lived through the pandemic to those who were assessed pre-pandemic. 

The team had access to brain assessments of 81 adolescents from before the pandemic. They compared those results to the MRI scans of 82 young adults who lived through the pandemic. 

The latter group may have been exposed to various types of trauma during the pandemic and early shutdown, including financial strain, threats to physical health and exposure to increased familial violence. 

The researchers found that the brains of pandemic youth were more physically aged than those of their sex- and age-matched peers that were scanned before the pandemic. The changes could also be considered similar to the brains of people who experienced significant adversity in childhood. This suggests that the developmental process was sped up in these individuals. 

“Compared to adolescents assessed before the pandemic, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns not only had more severe internalizing mental health problems, but also had reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age,” said first author Ian Gotlib, of Stanford’s School of Humanities & Sciences, in a press release

The team also assessed mental health, anxiety and depression in the participants. The COVID group reported more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and internalizing problems than the pre-pandemic group.

Mental health in people of all ages, but especially in youth, has suffered during the pandemic. The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory nearly a year ago on the topic of the youth mental health crisis, highlighting the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health” and to “empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.”

This study provides a peek into what possible biological changes may be occurring as a result of the pandemic stress. “We already know from global research that the pandemic has adversely affected mental health in youth, but we didn’t know what, if anything, it was doing physically to their brains,” said Gotlib. 

Although this study offers some insight, however, a lot remains unknown about what could be happening in the development of children and adolescents. The data from this study was originally meant to be a longitudinal study, where the brain scans were compared to previous scans from the same individual. This would provide a clearer indication of what has changed physically in the young adults’ brain structures. 

“Adolescence is already a period of rapid reorganization in the brain, and it’s already linked to increased rates of mental health problems, depression, and risk-taking behavior,” said Jonas Miller, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, in the press release.

“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,” Miller said. 

The authors also note that it’s unclear whether the changes are permanent. “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,” Gotlib said.