Mental health: The brains of teenagers in the US changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, causing them to age faster than average, according to studies.
Younger study participants reported more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, and internalized problems.
Internalized problems typically include feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, anxiety, and difficulty regulating emotions.
The symptoms all appeared after the first year of the pandemic.
Recent studies reveal multiple factors that caused adolescent mental health to suffer during the pandemic.
Teens were pulled out of school and separated from friends and support structures.
Many were forced to live with fear and uncertainty the Coronavirus brought.
Additionally, teens witnessed their parents losing their jobs while millions lost their parents and loved ones to the Coronavirus.
Titled Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, the study is among the first to examine physical changes in the brain caused by stress and anxiety.
The paper was also published last Thursday.
The research comes from a more extensive study in which scientists tried to understand gender differences in adolescent depression.
Eight years ago, scientists launched a plan to perform MRI scans on 220 children aged 9 and 13 every two years.
The team conducted two rounds of analysis before the pandemic halted their research.
As a result, they had to wait until late 2020 to resume the scanning.
By then, scientists determined that the children affected by the 2020 pandemic had brains older than their chronological age.
The brain had growths in the amygdala and hippocampus.
The amygdala is the area regulating anxiety and stress, while the hippocampus is the area controlling access to memories.
During this time, tissues in the cortex, the part of the brain that controls executive functions, have thinned.
While a child’s brain naturally changes over time, research has shown that physical changes can happen more quickly in the face of significant adversity.
Other studies show that the brains of people who experience abuse, neglect, poverty and family problems early in life age faster.
They are also prone to later mental health issues.
The study’s lead author is Ian Gotlib, who teaches psychology at Stanford University.
He said the team expected to find a problem behind anxiety and depression.
However, they weren’t sure what they’d find with the MRI scans.
“The pandemic has not been kind to adolescent mental health,” said Gotlib.
“It’s always interesting to do research like this when you’re not really sure what’s going to happen.”
“These effects were interesting and happened pretty quickly.”
“This wasn’t just a one-year shutdown,” Gotlib added.
“So we didn’t know that the effects on the brain would be this pronounced after that short a period of stress.”
“It tracks with the mental health difficulties that we’re seeing.”
Ian Gotlib says it is unclear whether brain changes will have an impact as they grow older.
Ian Gotlib’s team plans to examine ten children from the study who had Covid-19 to see if there is a different effect.
He noted that the physical difference is more pronounced in children with Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the diversion chief of pediatric neurology at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, Dr. Max Wiznitzer, agreed that the brain changes were interesting.
However, he stressed whether the mental health issues persist is more important.
“The anatomy is not important,” said Wiznitzer, who was uninvolved with the research.
“It’s the functionality that’s important.”
“The clinical consequence here is the functional impact, the mental health condition clinically and how it’s functioning and how you deal with it.”
Wiznitzer also said that people can manage anxiety or depression with the right mental health interventions.
“The brain has that capacity for reorganization – or call it improvement, if you will,” said Wiznitzer.
Ian Gotlib is hopeful that parents and guardians will remember that mental health consequences can linger despite the end of lockdowns and school closures.
“Be sure that your adolescent or your teen is getting any help that he or she, that they, might need if they’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or being withdrawn.”