Brain of teenagers aging faster than normal due to pandemic, study finds

A new study has revealed that teenagers had a tremendous impact on their mental health due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The findings claimed that pandemic-related stressors have physically aged the brains of adolescents.

Ian Gotlib, the first author of the journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science said, «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».

In 2020, a study by Stanford University claimed that anxiety and depression in adults rose by more than 25% compared to 2019.

As per scientists, changes in brain structure occur naturally as we age. During puberty and early teenage years, kids’ bodies experience increased growth in both the hippocampus and the amygdala, areas of the brain that respectively control access to certain memories and help to modulate emotions.

However, in MRI reports of 163 children, the study found that the developmental process sped up in adolescents as they experienced the Covid-19 lockdown.

According to the author of the study, such changes in the brain used to occur in children who have experienced chronic adversity, whether from violence, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination of multiple factors.

«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 Gotlib.

Gotlib, who is also the director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory at Stanford University, said, «It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent».

Further raising concern regarding the memory problem, the author said it is normal in senior citizens, but it is a sign of worry if adolocent will go through such a phase.

«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?» said Gotlib.

These findings might also have serious consequences for an entire generation of adolescents later in life, added co-author Jonas Miller, University of Connecticut, US.

«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 Miller.

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