November 17, 2023
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Early research presented at top brain conference suggests pandemic changed teen brains
Before COVID, the psychological health of American teenagers was already in decline. The pandemic, with its sudden lockdowns, school closures and other shocks to normal life, made that downward slope more pronounced. The ensuing mental health crisis has given researchers a rare opportunity to evaluate how an extraordinary event like a public health catastrophe can physically affect the brains of adolescents.
Preliminary results from some of these studies are beginning to be published, and they are sobering. At the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., this week, Elizabeth Powell, program officer at the National Institutes of Health, characterized the situation as a definitive disruption in normal adolescent brain development.
In a series of research results presented at the conference, Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington reported greater-than-normal thinning of the cerebral cortex in a group of 124 adolescents who had been followed before surgery. pandemic between ages nine and 17 and then again after the COVID lockdown period. “Our findings indicate that the adolescent brain showed accelerated aging due to the pandemic lockdown,” she said at the conference.
Kuhl, a professor and co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and her team first took neuroimaging measurements of participants’ brains in 2018. The researchers then compared the amount of brain thinning in 2021 with a computer model of what would normally be expected three years from the time the first measurements were made. The cortex normally thins as a teenager grows, but the model showed an accelerated pattern of thinning during the pandemic. The effect was much more notable in adolescent girls in the 68 brain areas measured. “The magnitude of this change (in adolescent girls) is quite large,” Kuhl said. “A girl who visited the laboratory, on average, at age 11 and then returned to the laboratory a second time at age 14 was aged 16.”
Kuhl and his team, who have not yet published their findings, have more work to do, but the study supports the findings of similar research looking at the impact of the pandemic on brain development. Thinning of the cortex can be a sign of stress. It can affect neuroplasticity, the ability to learn new things; The researchers are still trying to determine whether plasticity was affected in the group study. Kuhl is looking at how cortical thinning can affect language, cognition, and social and emotional well-being, and she and her team are also considering the impact of social media on adolescents.
Additionally, researchers are examining the health effects of the pandemic from another perspective: How well were they? adolescent brains prepared to resist such event? Adolescence is a time in which brain circuits often suffer significant disorders. “It is really important to understand the brain as a potential risk or protective factor that could have predisposed young people to mental health problems and/or amplified negative emotions and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Caterina Stamoulis. , associate professor. at Harvard Medical School, describing previously unpublished research at the conference. “And it’s important to understand that so we can develop better interventions for these young people.”
Stamoulis and colleagues analyzed neuroimaging data from 1,414 adolescents in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest ongoing U.S. study of brain development and childhood health. They examined the organization of brain networks and assessed the strength of connections in neural circuits and the efficiency with which those circuits processed information.
Less robust circuits in some brain networks predicted higher levels of sadness and other stress among adolescents when these measurements were taken in 2020 and 2021 (the two main years of the pandemic). “Brain circuits may have played a critical role in adolescents’ mental health, stress and emotional responses during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stamoulis said.