The researchers found that teens had higher “levels of depression, anxiety and fear than they had before the pandemic.” But we didn’t know anything about their effects on the brain,” said Gottlib, director of the Institute of Neurodevelopment, Emotion and Psychopathology at Stanford University. “We thought it might have similar effects to what we see in early adversity. We didn’t realize how strong they were.”
By comparing MRI scans of a group of 128 children, half taken before the end of the first year of the pandemic and half at the end of the first year of the pandemic, the researchers found that the hippocampus and amygdala found the growth of Each of these brain regions controls access to memories and helps regulate fear, stress, and other emotions.
They also found that cortical tissue involved in executive function thinned. These changes occur during normal pubertal development. But the pandemic appears to have accelerated that process, Gottlib said.
Premature aging of a child’s brain is not positive development. Before the pandemic, it was observed in cases of chronic childhood stress, trauma, abuse, and neglect. These adverse childhood experiences not only predispose people to depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental illnesses, but they are also at risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other long-term adverse effects. may increase the
The pre-pandemic image of the teenage brain comes from a longitudinal study that Gotlib’s team started eight years ago, with the initial goal of better understanding gender differences in depression rates among adolescents. was to do The researchers recruited 220 of her children, ages 9 to her 13, with a plan to have MRI scans of his brain every two years. As they were collecting his third series of scans, the pandemic halted all face-to-face research at Stanford, and scientists kept his brain scans from March 2020 until later in the year. can no longer be collected.
In debating how to explain the confusion, scientists saw an opportunity to investigate other issues. That is how the pandemic itself has affected the physical structure and mental health of children’s brains. They matched pairs of children of the same age and sex to create subgroups with similar adolescence, socioeconomic status, and exposure to childhood stress. We were able to compare a 16-year-old to another 16-year-old evaluated post-pandemic,” Gotlib said.
To determine the sample’s average brain age, the researchers input brain scans into a machine learning model to predict brain age developed by the ENIGMA-Brain Age working group. They also assessed mental health symptoms reported by matched pairs.
“The lesson for me is that there are serious issues with mental health and children around the pandemic,” Gottlib said. is not.”
Previous studies have found dramatically elevated levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, and other mental illnesses among adolescents since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The current study has important implications for other longitudinal imaging studies of the adolescent brain, said Jason Chaine, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Temple University’s Center for Brain Research and Imaging. “It has both methodological and potentially socially relevant implications,” Chain said.
Longitudinal studies of development across pandemics can yield results that are tainted by psychosocial effects, so broad conclusions about development cannot be drawn, Chain said. Adolescents and young adults may not be as advanced as might be expected based on chronological age alone, and may need long-term and ongoing mental health and other support.
But he cautioned against making broad interpretations based on the changes the researchers observed. “But I’m reluctant to jump to the conclusion that what it’s telling us is that somehow the child’s brain has matured more.” So simply having a thinner cortex or a larger amygdala doesn’t necessarily mean your brain is older, he said.
Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, noted that many people experience post-traumatic growth after a stressful experience. We have to commend them for their hard work,” Siegel said. “You want to ask the bigger question of how the brain’s restructuring process is affected?”
“This is a useful early study,” agreed David Fassler, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. “We hope the results will help design future research initiatives.”
In their paper, the authors admit that they still don’t know if the physical changes to the brain will persist. , will continue to collect data about study participants.
Stacey Gittleman, 54, of West Bloomfield, Michigan, saw one of her children derailed by the pandemic. An aspiring musical actor, he was in his senior year of high school when his school and theater closed. “A lot of his son’s development depends on being physically active, acting, doing hands-on work, and interacting with other people,” he said Gittleman. “He spent a lot of time in bed. My son was very active and social before the pandemic, so it was very painful to watch as a parent.”
Managing his mental health would be a lifelong job, she said, and said his siblings, now 24 and 26, weren’t feeling as affected. I believe that the adversity thrown at the feet of young people in the United States makes them stronger and more resilient,” she said.
I don’t know much about other parents. Meg Martin, 55, of Gaithersburg, Md., thinks it’s too early to tell if the teen is back on track. I was going to apply to a four-year boarding college, but after years of online and hybrid learning, I feel unmotivated and disconnected from school.
“I think the way he played out in high school will have ripple effects for years to come,” Martin said.
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