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The Effect of COVID on the Teen Brain

The Effect of COVID on the Teen Brain

Dr. Lisa Rouff explores a new study that finds teens’ brains aged faster than normal during the pandemic, and not in a good way.

As a psychologist, I’ve always tried to remember that feelings and thoughts have an actual physical mechanism that produces them.  Although our thoughts and feelings seem abstract, they are the result of a complex series of physical and biochemical activities. As technology has progressed, we are better able to understand how the brain functions and which parts of the brain are used for different activities and emotional states.

Thus, given the rapid increase in mental health issues among teens right now, I wasn’t surprised to see the results of this study, in which Stanford researchers found that since the pandemic, brain changes that normally happen in teens are now happening at an earlier age—about two to three years earlier.  Specifically, their frontal cortexes are thinning, and their amygdalas and hippocampi are enlarging, two to three years earlier than previously.  In normal adolescence, these changes can be seen as the root of the increase in impulsive behavior.  The frontal cortex is the rational, executive functioning “boss” of the brain, and helps to inhibit behavior that may be damaging in the long term.  Having less of this tissue could mean the teen has less power to control their behavior.  The amygdala and hippocampus are responsible for emotions and emotional memory, so if they are enlarged, it stands to reason that the level and intensity of emotions are increased.  This makes teens more emotional, less rational, and more prone to impulsive actions.

Although we don’t know what it means when this happens two to three years earlier than it normally does, it could be that teens are being flooded with more intense feelings at a younger age, with less executive functioning capacity.  If you add increased, prolonged stressors, a younger teen with less life experience could be more prone to all kinds of problems, including increased depression, anxiety, and impulsivity.  Correlation is not causation, but it seems reasonable to me to assume that these brain changes could be a causal factor in the increased mental illness rates among teens today.

I suspect if we had MRI technology during other societal crises, such as the Spanish flu pandemic and World Wars I and II, we would have seen similar brain anatomy changes.  We don’t know if this accelerated aging stops at some point, allowing the person’s chronological age to catch up, or if it has permanent long-term effects.

So often in our culture, we treat mental illness symptoms as volitional, meaning that a person could choose to feel better or “snap out of it.” However, just as we can’t will a broken leg to heal instantly, we can’t expect teens to be able to fix anatomical brain changes with thoughts and wishes.  Hopefully, this research will inform how we as a society view mental illness among today’s teens and will help us find treatments and solutions to help our future adults.

It will also be interesting to see how colleges and universities deal with this group of teens, who have undergone societal and biological changes that didn’t occur in prior generations. Although schools are attempting to increase the amount of mental health treatment available, it will likely require a larger effort and perhaps systemic changes in how universities are run to help this generation of teens succeed.  Recognizing that what worked ten years ago will not work now would be a key step in improving the educational experiences of “Generation C.”

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