Brain scans hint at how well teens will manage pandemic stress

Weaker links between certain parts of the brain were tied to less resilience during COVID

A teen looks sadly at a laptop screen in a dark room.

Some teens had weaker links between certain areas of the brain before the COVID-19 pandemic. These adolescents appeared more likely to feel sad or stressed during the pandemic, new data show.

Jo McRyan/DigitalVision/Getty Images

WASHINGTON D.C. — The COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges. But for scientists studying teen brains, it was a chance to explore how adolescents handle stressful times. Brain scans taken before the pandemic turned up factors that seemed to predict how teens’ mental health fared during the pandemic.  

These findings may help explain why some people are better able to deal with stress. Researchers presented their results here, November 13, at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.  

A lot of research focuses on impacts at a single point in time, says Margot Wagner. A bioengineer, she works at the University of California, San Diego and did not take part in the new work. This study, she notes, followed hundreds of teens over time. That let scientists spot brain features that were connected to later outcomes. She says it also now suggests that “you can intervene and help way sooner than otherwise.”  

The pandemic was tough on many kids. They experienced isolation, worry and big changes to daily life. Scientists are now identifying longer-term impacts — a record number of teens struggling with depression and anxiety. Some scientists call this mental-health crisis “the second pandemic.”  

Even as many teenagers struggled during the pandemic, others did okay. Caterina Stamoulis wanted to know why. A computational neuroscientist, she works at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts.  

Stamoulis used data collected as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, also known as ABCD. It collected data at 21 research sites across the United States. By studying more than 11,000 adolescents, scientists are learning how a teen’s brain grows and matures.  

“This is the first time in history we’re looking at thousands of participants and getting these measures over time,” Wagner says. “It’s truly remarkable.” 

Scanning for the pandemic effect 

Scientists scanned the brains of 1,414 teens for the ABCD study. They used functional MRI brain scans, or fMRI. These measure blood flow in the brain. Active areas show more blood flow. These images also help reveal how certain parts of the brain work together. Neuroscientists call such links brain circuits.  

Begun in 2015, ABCD was well underway when COVID hit. That meant researchers had brain scans from before the pandemic. They could compare brain circuits from back then with the teens’ later responses to stress. “Without the pandemic, we would not have been able to understand the impact of a long-lasting adverse event,” Stamoulis notes. 

In May 2020, as the world shut down, researchers started surveying teens in the study about how they were doing. They surveyed them every few months. The responses measured aspects of mental health, stress and sadness, among other things.  

Before the pandemic, some teens had weaker neural links between certain parts of the brain. These teens fared worse than those with stronger links, the team found. Affected brain regions included the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is a brain area right behind the forehead. It gets drastically reshaped during adolescence. The amygdala is a structure inside each side of the brain. It helps process emotions.  

The data show that kids with weaker links between these areas were more likely to feel sad and stressed during the pandemic, Stamoulis reports. “Stronger and more resilient brain networks predicted better mental health, lower stress and lower sadness.” 

Researchers don’t yet know why some teens’ brain networks are stronger. Stamoulis and her colleagues plan to study these brain circuits over time. As our brains develop, they respond to many experiences and factors in our surroundings. If those are positive, Stamoulis says, they can be “protective factors for the brain and how its circuits evolve and become wired.” 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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