Brain scans give clues to how teens handle pandemic stress

Weaker connections between certain parts of the organ predicted harder times during COVID

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

Weaker connections between certain parts of the brain before the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with teenagers having more sadness and stress during the pandemic, a study finds.

Jo McRyan/DigitalVision/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Brain scans could be used to predict how teenagers’ mental health will fare during a stressful time, an analysis that spanned the COVID-19 pandemic suggests.

The findings, presented November 13 in a news briefing at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, may help explain why some people succumb to stress while others are more resilient.

For a lot of research, “the study happens, and you report on the results, and that’s about it,” says Margot Wagner, a bioengineer at the University of California, San Diego who was not involved in the new work. But this research followed hundreds of teenagers over time, a study design that “means you can intervene and help way sooner than otherwise,” Wagner says.

The pandemic was particularly tough for many teenagers, as isolation, worry and upheaval of daily routines affected them in ways that scientists are just now starting to see (SN: 1/3/23). A record number of young people are struggling with depression and anxiety, a mental health crisis that some scientists are calling “the second pandemic” (SN: 6/30/23).

While many teenagers struggled during the pandemic, others did OK. Computational neuroscientist Caterina Stamoulis of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital investigated why responses differed using data collected as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development, or ABCD, study. That larger study — involving scientists at 21 research sites across the United States — aims to figure out how teenagers’ brains grow over the years.

“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.”

The ABCD study, begun in 2015, was well under way when COVID hit, so researchers possessed brain scans from before the pandemic. “Without the pandemic, we would not have been able to understand the impact of a long-lasting adverse event” that deeply affected the participants’ lives, changing their interactions with their family and friends, Stamoulis says.

At the outset of the project, fMRI brain scans measured blood flow — a proxy for brain cell activity — in 1,414 teenagers, a subset of the more than 11,000 adolescents enrolled in the ABCD study. The fMRI images recorded how certain regions of the brain behave in tandem with each other, a clue that those regions work together in what neuroscientists call a brain circuit.

“Neuroimaging data is particularly useful for developing predictive models of future outcomes,” says neuroscientist and engineer Vince Calhoun of Georgia Tech, “including resilience to stress, depression and many other things.”

In May 2020, as the world shut down, researchers started surveying the teenagers in the study about how they were holding up. These surveys, sent every few months, measured aspects of mental health, stress and sadness, among other things.

Teenagers who had weaker neural connections between certain parts of the brain before the pandemic fared worse than teenagers with stronger neural connections, the team found. These brain regions included the prefrontal cortex, a brain area that gets drastically reshaped during adolescence, and the amygdala, a structure on each side of the brain that’s involved in emotions. Weaker brain connections were associated with kids having more sadness and stress during the pandemic.

Weaker and more fragile networks predicted harder times during the pandemic, Stamoulis says. But “stronger and more resilient brain networks predicted better mental health, lower stress and lower sadness.”

She and her colleagues plan to study these brain circuits as time goes on. As brains develop, they respond to experiences and environments. 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. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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