Teen mental health during the pandemic

December 5, 2022

Is This Your Brain On COVID?

New research on the teenage brain before and after pandemic shutdowns.

The Study

  • Who: 81 youth were compared to 82 youth with similar characteristics, before and after pandemic shutdowns. The youth, who were already participating in a long-term study prior to this one, were from the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • What: The two groups received brain scans and had mental health symptoms assessed.
  • Bottom Line: Youth screened after the pandemic shutdowns showed “more severe internalizing mental health problems,” as well as changes to their brain structure and “more advanced brain age.”

“Even though they were age-matched, their brains looked older. It confirms the stress that they experienced during the pandemic and the effects that they have had, not only on their mental health but on their brain, as well.”

Ian Gotlib, lead author of the study. Research shows that difficulties in early life (e.g. financial strain, social isolation) are associated with poorer mental health and disrupted brain development. This study found that youth assessed after pandemic shutdowns showed brains about three years older than the age of those assessed pre-COVID.

“Large-scale measures of the brain don’t tell us about the detailed circuits that drive behaviour. I would say it’s very speculative what, if any, long term consequences there will be, and whether these brain changes will be enduring or fade away.”

Professor of cognitive neuroscience, Michael Thomas, Birkbeck University of London. The study showed changes to the parts of the brain responsible for learning, emotion, memory, judgment, concentration and reactivity. However, the long term impact is unknown.

While behavioral effects from the pandemic have been documented in youth, this study is one of the first to provide data on youth brain development. It found that brain features of youth after pandemic shutdowns “are more typical of individuals who are older or who experienced significant adversity in childhood.” Something To Consider: Although the natural deduction is that this would produce all negative impacts, Professor Thomas “stressed that it was not clear that potential impacts would necessarily be negative, noting some of the accelerated changes reported … were also associated with higher performance, such as in intelligence tests” (The Guardian).

The Study: Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Brain Maturation in Adolescents

Teens’ brains aged faster during the first year of the pandemic, study says, and stress may be to blame (CNN Health)

Brains of post-lockdown teens show signs of faster ageing, study finds (The Guardian)

How the pandemic aged teen brains (Axios)

by Jenna Lee,