What you need to know
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyone’s lives, but especially those of children and adolescents. To slow the spread of the virus, many public schools transitioned from in-person to virtual learning, and local and state governments restricted the number of people who were allowed to gather in public places. For teens, these constraints reduced social outlets and access to school-based mental health services. Public health professionals worried that the shutdown of schools and social gatherings would have lasting effects on the mental health of adolescents.
In a small study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), researchers found that teen brains looked as though they had aged an average of about 3 years during only 10 months of the pandemic. This effect mirrors what is known to happen in teen brains after they are exposed to adversity or traumatic events.
What did the researchers do?
Researchers in the San Francisco Bay area had been collecting magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of adolescents ages 13 to 17 for several years when the COVID-19 pandemic forced their research to pause. The researchers’ original plan was to scan the brains of people from a range of ages across the teenage years to see how the brain develops over time. But when their study restarted 10 months later, the researchers realized they could compare images of teen brains before the pandemic with images of teen brains after the pandemic began to see whether normal development continued during the pandemic’s disruption.
The researchers compared images from 64 teens who had already been scanned before the shutdown with images from 64 teens who received scans when the study restarted. The researchers matched the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic teen brains as closely as possible based on sex, age when scanned, race, household income, and other demographics.
Researchers then compared the brain structures responsible for controlling emotions and executive functions, such as decision-making. They also compared the results of mental health questionnaires from both groups. Lastly, they plugged brain measurements from the scans into a computer model to estimate brain age.
What did they learn?
After pandemic shutdowns, teens reported more anxiety and depression. They also internalized problems more than the teens interviewed before the pandemic.
Brain scans showed that parts of the brain involved in memory and emotion — the hippocampus and the amygdala — were thicker in post-shutdown teen brains. The cortex — the area involved in executive functions, such as self-control and problem-solving — was thinner. These changes are normal in brain development, but they appear to have happened faster during the pandemic shutdowns.
On average, the brains of teens who went through 10 months of pandemic shutdowns aged around 3 years. This premature aging is similar to changes that happen in the brains of teens who experience violence, neglect, and family dysfunction.
Why is this research important?
These findings underscore the serious struggle that adolescents experienced during pandemic shutdowns and should be taken into consideration by health care providers, mental health professionals, parents, and others who work with teens. Prematurely aging brains can correlate with depression, anxiety, and addiction in the future and a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
The results are also important for the scientific community. Researchers who conduct studies with teens who have been living through the pandemic cannot assume that their brains have developed at the same rate as teens’ brains before the pandemic.
Where can I go to learn more?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has resources for adults who want to help teens through COVID-19.
An NIH-funded study is developing an online risk calculator to help health care providers predict which COVID-19 patients will develop brain-related complications.
NIMH Director Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., shares information and insights on COVID-19 and the pandemic.
Gotlib, I. H., Miller, J. G., Borchers, L. R., Coury, S. M., Costello, L. A., Garcia, J. M., & Ho, T. C. (2022). Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and brain maturation in adolescents: Implications for analyzing longitudinal data. Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, 10.1016/j.bpsgos.2022.11.002. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsgos.2022.11.002
NIH COVID-19 Resources by Topic
COVID-19 research information and resources by topic from NIH institutes and centers