“We found that youth assessed after the pandemic shutdowns had more severe internalizing mental health problems, reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age,” Ian H. Gotlib, PhD, professor and director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect and Psychopathology Laboratory at Stanford University, and colleagues wrote in the study.
Gotlib and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study that included assessing the effects of early life stress on psychobiology during puberty. A total of 163 adolescents in the San Francisco Bay Area took part in the study. Participants were divided into two matched subsamples comprising of a “pre-COVID” group (n = 81) and a “peri-COVID” group (n = 82).
They were asked to self-report depressive symptoms using the 10-item version of the Children’s Depression Inventory, and anxiety symptoms were analyzed using the total score of the Social Anxiety and Physical Symptom subscales of the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children (MASC).
MRI scans were conducted using a 32-channel head coil.
Using cortical and subcortical features, the researchers calculated brain age gap estimate (BrainAGE) values using sex-specific models.
The peri-COVID group reported more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and internalizing problems than the pre-COVID group. However, the groups did not significantly differ in externalizing problems.
A significant difference in brain metrics was found between the pre-COVID and peri-COVID groups. The peri-COVID group was found to have reduced bilateral cortical thickness and larger hippocampal volume as well as bilateral amygdala volume. Those in the peri-COVID group also had an older BrainAGE than those in the pre-COVID group.
“The pandemic appears to have altered adolescent mental health and neurodevelopment, at least in the short term, which will present a challenge for researchers in analyzing longitudinal data from studies of normative development that were interrupted by the pandemic,” Gotlib and colleagues wrote.
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