Two years have passed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and scientists have wasted no time studying the effects on mental illness, but there has been little work done on the stress from isolation on the brain.
On Thursday, Ian Gotlib, the director of Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology Laboratory, and his fellow researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, released a study that found that three years of physical maturation occurred in teens’ brains during 10 months of isolation.
“We thought there might be effects similar to what you would find with early adversity; we just didn’t realize how strong they’d be,” Gotlib told The Washington Post.
Three areas of the brain that researchers studied were the hippocampus, the amygdala and cortical thickness, which all control things like learning, memory, emotion and executive functioning. Participants were additionally asked questions to rate their mental health.
The results showed that not only was mental illness more prevalent in these teens compared to before the pandemic, but there was a dramatic increase in the size of their amygdala and hippocampus, and thinning of the cortical thickness.
Teens’ brains were forced to mature faster — and strained — to cope with this early life stress.
Brain changes like those recorded in the study also occur in children and teens who experience early trauma and abuse, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and make them more susceptible to health conditions such as mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and addiction, as well as heightening their risk of things like diabetes, cancer or heart disease.
Michael Thomas, a cognitive neuroscientist in London who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian that it’s still hard to tell what the future holds for these teens and the results of this study.
“These are interesting data to show that the pandemic may have had profound effects on teenagers, enough to be reflected in measures of brain structure,” Thomas told The Guardian, “but these data can’t tell us whether negative long-term outcomes are inevitable, or whether the plasticity of the brain will allow this generation to bounce back.”
Gotlib told Fox News that his team plans to continue following the teens from the study into adulthood to see the further development of their brains.