A new study from Stanford University suggests that stress from the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the brains of teenagers, resulting in their brains appearing years older than the brains of pre-pandemic teenagers. The pandemic resulted in increased anxiety and depression among teenagers, but this new research indicates that the effects may not just stop there.
Scientists know that traumatic childhood experiences can accelerate changes in brain structure. Research conducted by Katie McLaughlin, associate professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and her team led to the conclusion that adversity was connected with reduced cortical thickness. This is a sign of brain aging because as people age, their cortices naturally thin.
Marjorie Mhoon Fair Professor of Psychology Ian Gotlib originally designed a long-term study to research the effects of depression during puberty. He had been conducting brain scans on 220 children, ages 9-13, but he was not able to continue due to COVID-19. After the pandemic, Gotlib resumed his study, and the results were shocking. Researchers discovered that the developmental process of cortical thinning had been accelerated for the teenagers compared to normal brain development. According to Gotlib, “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.” It remains unclear to scientists whether or not the teenager’s brain age will eventually catch up to its chronological age.
Scientists speculate that the increased anxiety, depression, and overall mental health issues teenagers are experiencing following the pandemic may be linked to cortical thinning. Researchers speculate that cortical thinning may be linked to the expression of certain patterns of genes associated with different psychiatric disorders. Additionally, from studying children who suffered childhood trauma prior to the pandemic, researchers already know that negative childhood experiences can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental illnesses. The risk of physical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, increases as well.
Jason Chein, professor of psychology and neuroscience and the director of the Temple University Brain Research & Imaging Center, found the research intriguing, but he cautioned against accepting the conclusion that children’s brains definitely aged faster. “It’s pretty interesting that they observed this change,” he said. “But I’m reluctant to then jump to the conclusion that what it signals to us is that somehow we’ve advanced the maturation of the brains of kids.”
AP Bio Connection 🙂
I chose this topic because I was interested in the effects of the pandemic on people in my age group. This topic connects to AP Bio because brain aging has been linked to increase stress hormones. The stress hormone corticosteroid activates an intracellular receptor which results in the changed gene expression. Due to the fact that corticosteroids activate intracellular receptors, they must be nonpolar molecules in order to enter the cell membrane. Feel free to comment down below if you enjoyed the article!!