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COVID-19 Pandemic Stress Physically Aged Teenagers’ Brains

New study from Stanford shows that the pandemic made young people mature faster neurologically

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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Three years ago, Stanford psychology professor Ian Gotlib was recruiting children and teenagers from the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a long-term study. The study was intended to research depression during puberty, with each participant getting an MRI scan on a regular basis to track any neurological changes.

Then the pandemic hit.

With shelter-in-place orders swiftly imposed, the participants couldn’t get their MRI scans, so Gotlib and his lab had to postpone their research and wait for the Coronavirus threat to pass. But as vaccines rolled out and lockdowns were lifted, Gotlib and his team realized that they couldn’t merely start administering MRI tests again. Gotlib knew from past psychological literature that stressful circumstances—neglect, violence, abuse, or other factors—in a young person’s life don’t just affect them emotionally. Such circumstances cause their brains to age faster physically, with affected children showing neurological development that is typically only found in older children. Gotlib realized that the pandemic, which he describes as a “generation-defining event,” may have had a similar impact on children. This posed a problem: if the participants’ neurological wiring had been affected by the pandemic, they could no longer continue the study on depression.

But with that complication, a new door opened. Gotlib and his lab still had all the MRI results for the “pre-COVID group.” Knowing it was possible that the participants’ brains had been affected by pandemic stress, Gotlib and his team pivoted to confirm if that was indeed the case.

In the new study, the researchers recruited a group of “peri-COVID” participants matching the age, sex, puberty, socioeconomic status, and exposure to early life stress of the pre-COVID group. They administered MRI scans and examined the results. Confirming their hypothesis, the peri-COVID participants showed accelerated brain development. Their brains’ neurological structures resembled older, more mature children. Previously, these changes in “brain age” had only been seen in adolescents who were faced with chronic adversity in life.

According to a press release from Stanford University, this research “could have major implications for other longitudinal studies that have spanned the pandemic. If kids who experienced the pandemic show accelerated development in their brains, scientists will have to account for that abnormal rate of growth in any future research involving this generation.”

Other studies have examined the psychological effects of the pandemic on young people. A study published in PLOS this past September confirmed that adolescents came out of the pandemic less open, agreeable, and extraverted, while more neurotic. With research examining both the psychological and neurological ramifications of the pandemic in youth, one thing is clear: society may feel the ripple effect of these changes for years to come as today’s generation of young people grows older.