Study: COVID-19 Has Scary Impact on Young Brains


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The rise of COVID-19 worsened daily life for Latinos and many others in areas like healthcare, housing, income, and food access.

Stress and anxiety are other grim outcomes of the pandemic, especially for youth.

Following COVID-19-fueled school shutdowns and social isolation, adolescents experienced more symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater internalizing problems than before the pandemic, according to a new study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The brains of teens and young adults were also deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In addition to replicating prior findings that the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected adolescents’ mental health, this study showed that the pandemic may have physically aged their brains,” according to research highlights from the NIMH.

Let’s dive deeper into the study findings and what it means for mental and brain health for young Latinos!

What Did the Youth Mental Health Study Find?

The study, led by Dr. Ian Gotlib of Stanford University, examined 163 adolescents (ages 13-17) in San Francisco, Calif.

The youth had been participating in a longer-length study, allowing researchers to explore the brain health of half the youth before COVID-19 and the other half after March 2020.

Researchers gathered participants’ self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms. They also conducted MRI brain scans to examine cortical thickness and volume; they analyzed those scans in a machine-learning program to calculate participants’ overall brain age.

They then compared the pre-pandemic youth to the post-pandemic ones.

“Compared to the pre-pandemic group, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater internalizing problems,” according to a study news release. “Their brains showed thinning of the cortex, which helps execute mental processes like planning and self-control, and reduced volume in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in accessing memories and regulating responses to fear and stress, respectively.”

Results also showed that participants had larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and more advanced brain age.

“While hippocampal volume is believed to affect cognition and memory, it has not yet been proven,” according to Genomelink. “The hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to neurological disruptions, some of which can lead to severe medical consequences.”

The amygdala is defined by Simply Psychology as “a complex structure of cells nestled in the middle of the brain, adjacent to the hippocampus (which is associated with memory formation).”

The amygdala defines and regulates emotions and preserves memories and attaches those memories to specific emotions, called emotional remembrances, according to Healthline.

The study concluded that, based on the cortical and subcortical features of the post-shutdown group, the adolescents had older brain ages than those assessed before the pandemic.

“Their brains showed neuroanatomical features more typical of older people or those who experienced chronic stress or adversity in childhood,” according to the NIMH.

Why is This Study Important for Young Latinos and Mental Health?

The NIMH study – and its finding that COVID-19 hurt the brain development of teens and young adults – further magnifies the youth mental health crisis.

The crisis is so widespread that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has issued a new advisory calling it an “urgent public health issue.”

That is especially true for Latino youth.

Latino youth already struggle with suicide and depression, toxic stress, less mental healthcare, cultural and immigration issues, discrimination, and more.

“Research studies have found that Latino youth experience the highest levels of depressive symptoms relative to other racial-ethnic groups in the United States, and among the highest rates of suicidality,” Dr. Gabriela Livas Stein, associate director of clinical training at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told Psych Central. “These increased symptoms start as early as late elementary school and have been documented into young adulthood.”

COVID-19 is worsening the mental health of young Latinos.

A study by GW Hatchett found that COVID-related stressors, such as household hospitalizations and income loss, increased adolescent childcare responsibility. These were associated with increased internalizing and externalizing symptoms and declines in school performance within Latino youth.

“Latino adolescents’ mental health and academic performance declined during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents’ job loss and teenagers’ childcare responsibilities increased,” according to the GW Hatchett study.

What Are Some Important Mental Health Resources?

It isn’t always easy for adolescents to talk about their mental health with others.

Many young Latinos may be hesitant to reach out for help due to cultural stigmas or lack of access.

However, mental health resources are available for adolescents in need of help.

Young people of any background, race, and ethnicity can reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for 24/7, free and confidential support by calling or texting 988.

Support and resources from the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is also available in Spanish

The National Alliance on Mental Illness also provides support through the NAMI HelpLine.

The HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET.

Reach the HelpLine by calling 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), texting “HelpLine” to 62640 or emailing

How Can You Improve Health in Your Community?

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many financially, physically, and mentally.

How can you see how your community was impacted?

Visit the Salud America! Health Equity Report Card and explore data on your community.

See what your county looks like in relation to several health-related conditions such as transportation, housing, and healthcare.

Compare the data to other counties and states across the United States and share the results with city leaders and health coalitions or collaboratives to advocate for change!


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