the pandemic has transformed teenage brains

The consequences of these changes are still unclear, but the implications are profound.

The SARS-Cov2 pandemic has had devastating effects on many levels of society. In addition to the obvious public health concern, the spread of the virus has also disrupted global supply chains with far-reaching consequences for the global economy.

In time, another question began to emerge: the psychological impact of the consequences of the pandemic. Because it’s not just about SARS-Cov2 itself. For example, more and more works tend to show that llong periods of imprisonment has been devastating to mental health many individuals, even those who have not been infected; according to the WHO, the number of cases of depression in 2020 alone increased by about 25% compared to the previous year.

Today, researchers have a little more perspective on this topic. And a very clear trend is now emerging; everything suggests that this influence psychologically has been largely underestimated, especially in young people. And the prestigious Stanford University has just added water to this mill.

We already knew from the global research effort that the pandemic had negatively affected the mental health of young people begins by stating Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford and lead author of a recent study on the subject.

But what did we not know “, he nuances,” is if this process physically affected the brains “. The latest study he did with his colleagues, on the other hand, gave some decisive answers. And unfortunately they are quite worrying.

Marked changes in different areas of the brain

The researchers followed a cohort of 163 children and young people. Originally, they had absolutely no objective to work on the consequences of the pandemic. They planned to conduct a longitudinal study of adolescent depression.

© Pancrat via Wikimedia Commons

But after conducting a first round of studies on all the subjects, their protocol was hit hard by the pandemic; with the youth now confined, the researchers were unable to perform the many follow-up MRIs that were planned.

When the process finally returned to normal, Gotlib and his team were already a full year behind. In normal times, the researchers could have made statistical corrections to preserve their results. But they believed the pandemic represented an important tipping point that could have significantly changed the results of their depression study.

An “aging” comparable to victims of abuse

This technique only works if you assume that a teenager’s brain today is the same as it was before the pandemic. », explains the author. For the sake of integrity, they therefore made the decision to discontinue the protocol. But out of conscience and curiosity, they also wanted to check this very point.

And there, amazement: they noticed significant physical differences between the young people’s brains before and after the pandemic, regardless of whether they were infected or not. “ They had more serious mental health problems, but also one reduction in cortical thickness as well as one expansion of the hippocampus and amygdala “, they describe.

The changes observed in the brain are reminiscent of those generally observed in young people living in a context of ” chronic hardship “. © M. – Unsplash

However, these changes are anything but anecdotal; these are generally changes found in significantly older adults. In other words, the pandemic has made ” to grow old the brains of many young people. This is all the more disturbing since these changes usually only occur in children in cases of ” chronic hardship ”, for example in case of neglect or abuse.

A clear observation, but still unclear conclusions

However, caution must be exercised in interpretation. This pandemic is a unique case in our modern history, and scientists are therefore sorely lacking in data when it comes to reasoning on a global scale. “ It is a global phenomenon, no one has not paid the price says Gottlib. ” There is no real control group «, he laments.

However, these control groups are essential in all studies related to health. For example, when testing a drug, it is imperative to define a group called ” management who receive a placebo instead. This approach makes it possible to avoid a large number of biases and to show that a result is significant.

This means that the researchers currently do not know whether these changes will be permanent or not. They also failed to clearly determine whether they had a direct impact on mental health.

If their brains remain “older” than their chronological age, the outcome is not yet clear. For a septuagenarian, cognitive problems were expected from observing these changes, but we don’t know what this means for a 16-year-old whose brain is aging prematurely. ” says Gotlib.

Of “ major implications ” for research

Despite these gray areas, this discovery could still have “ major implications for a lot of other studies done during the pandemic. In the future, by combining this work, it may be possible to determine the origin or consequences of brain changes.

Additionally, if other studies confirm that the pandemic has indeed “aged” young people’s brains on the scale, this is data that future researchers will be imperative to consider for any research project involving this generation.

laboratory covid
© Michel Jarmolul – Pixabay

Adolescence is already a time of rapid brain remodeling. We already associate it with psychological problems, depression and lack of inhibition says study co-author Jonas Miller. “ And now you have this overarching event where everyone faces some sort of adversity that disrupts the daily routine. So it may be that the brains of these young people are not comparable to the brains of children a few years ago. “.

Gotlib and his colleagues will therefore continue to follow the 163 young people. The team will also complete this work by reintegrating the original depression protocol. This will allow you to start looking connections between these changes and their possible physiological consequences. We are definitely not done hearing about this pandemic…

The research paper is available at this address.

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