According to a study conducted by researchers from Stanford University, the COVID lockdowns prematurely aged teenage brains.
The researchers stated that a teenager’s brain structure changes as they age and go through puberty. This includes both a thinning of the outer cortex, which helps with problem-solving and learning and the growth of the hippocampus and the amygdala which are responsible for memories and emotions.
“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,”, said the study’s lead author, Ian GotlibIn, in a news release announcing the findings.
Prior to the pandemic, the researchers had scanned the brains of over 150 children as part of their research on teenage depression.
However, the advent of the pandemic quickly changed the study’s parameters allowing them to examine the impact the COVID lockdowns had on the brain structure of teens.
In its news release, Stanford University reported:
“By comparing MRI scans from a cohort of 163 children taken before and during the pandemic, Gotlib’s study showed that this developmental process sped up in adolescents as they experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns. Until now, he says, these sorts of accelerated changes in “brain age” have appeared only in children who have experienced chronic adversity, whether from violence, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination of multiple factors.“
Scans of their brains before and during the pandemic revealed that the brains of teens who had gone through lockdowns had prematurely aged. Their brains were chronologically older than those of similarly aged teens prior to the pandemic.
The researchers are uncertain what this means for long-term health.
In its news release, Stanford University added:
“It’s also not clear if the changes are permanent,” said Gotlib, who is also the director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology (SNAP) Laboratory at Stanford University.
“Will their chronological age eventually catch up to their ‘brain age’? If their brain remains permanently older than their chronological age, it’s unclear what the outcomes will be in the future. 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?”