A new study confirms the COVID-19 pandemic affected not only the mental health of teenagers in the U.S. but also prematurely aged their brains by at least three years.
A study published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science showed that teenagers' brains were physically altered and aged at an accelerated rate due to stress brought on by the COVID lockdowns.
"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," Ian Gotlib, a scientist who completed the study, told Sci Tech Daily.
As CBN News reported, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers found between March and October 2020, emergency department visits for mental health emergencies rose by 24% for children ages 5-11 years and 31% for children ages 12-17 years. Emergency hospital visits for suspected suicide attempts increased by nearly 51% among girls ages 12-17 years in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
Lockdowns, limited face-to-face interactions with friends, teachers, and family, along with stress from the pandemic itself, negatively affected teenagers' mental health, according to the study.
With that, researchers are realizing the pandemic has caused youth's brains to age in the same manner as children who have experienced chronic adversity, such as neglect and family dysfunction.
"The pandemic appears to have been particularly difficult for children and adolescents," the study's authors wrote. "In fact, a recent meta-analysis found that the prevalence of internalizing symptoms in youth has doubled since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic."
Gotlib and his team scanned the brains of 163 youth in the San Francisco Bay area before the start of the pandemic and compared those MRI scans to that same group of children during the pandemic.
The study found that 16-year-olds had more severe mental health problems, and their brains appeared "several years" older than 16-year-olds who were assessed before pandemic restrictions began.
Gotlib and his team did not set out to study the impact of COVID-19 on brain structure, but like most Americans, they had to make a shift because of the pandemic.
Initially, they recruited children and adolescents to study the long-term effects of depression during puberty, but when the pandemic hit they could not conduct regularly-scheduled MRI scans on those youth, Sci Tech Daily reported.
"Then, nine months later, we had a hard restart," Gotlib said.
The shift is proving valuable as their findings will have implications for other studies involving children and adolescents.
"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 adds that he is unsure if the changes will be permanent.
"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," he said.
Researchers plan to follow study participants to keep track of the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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 the study's co-author Jonas Miller.
"Now you have this global event that's happening, where everyone is experiencing some kind of adversity in the form of disruption to their daily routines – so it might be the case that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today are not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago," he added.