The COVID-19 pandemic produced dramatic changes in the daily lives of adolescents, and these changes were particularly detrimental for teens’ academic, social, and emotional development.
Using brain measures (Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI), Patricia Kuhl, along with colleagues Neva Corrigan and Ariel Rokem, studied the structure of the brain in teens ranging in age from 9 to 20 years, before and after the pandemic. They examined cortical thickness, a measure known to be adversely affected by high levels of stress. Cortical thickness is highest in childhood and normally decreases with age, starting in adolescence.
The data show that cortical thickness in teenagers, following the pandemic, was abnormally reduced across widespread areas of the brain when compared to the expected normal patterns of brain change. Further analyses indicated that the cortical thinning effect was much more pronounced in females than in males. Premature reduction in cortical thickness during adolescence has previously been associated with chronic stress and/or trauma. Our findings suggest that the lifestyle changes necessitated by COVID-19 altered the normal pattern of brain structure change in teenagers, producing structural alterations typically associated with chronic stress.
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