Gaggle Speaks

Ideas, news, and advice for K-12 educators and administrators to help create safe learning environments.

Written by Susan Gentz
on February 14, 2023

Student’s brains are physically changing. This seems like an incredible thing to say, but it’s true. In a recent study done by Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, The study found that, “youth assessed after the pandemic shutdowns had more severe internalizing mental health problems, reduced cortical thickness, larger hippocampal and amygdala volume and more advanced brain.

This led researchers to conclude that “the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have led to poorer mental health and accelerated brain aging in adolescents and it poses significant challenges to researchers analyzing data from longitudinal studies of normative development that were interrupted by the pandemic.”

Researchers at Stanford aggregated their brain scans into a machine learning model for predicting brain age. They also evaluated mental health symptoms reported by matched pairs.

How does Accelerated Brain Aging Impact mental health?

First let’s talk about what these different parts of the brain do. The hippocampus and amygdala respectively control access to some memories and help regulate emotions such as fear and stress. The thinning of the cortical thickness is involved in executive function.

These growths and thinning of the cortical thickness is similar to what a brain with adverse childhood experiences have. This makes students more vulnerable to things like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Along with mental health there are higher risks of illness such as cancer, diabetes, and heart-disease. The team found that, “adolescents assessed during the pandemic have neuroanatomical features that are more typical of individuals who are older or who experienced significant adversity in childhood.”

What Should Districts Do?

It was a challenge before the pandemic to serve student mental health needs. It is time for districts to use technology to their advantage and get students seen in a teletherapy environment. This is the only way the aging brains are going to feel heard. We know the impacts of feeling heard are great, how one person can convince someone their life is worth living, and convince them that taking other lives is not the right answer. It is time to be preemptive on this topic. There are too many lives at a breaking point. We cannot simply offer the same services as before the pandemic that we do now. Brains are changing, and requires our methods of delivery to also change. We can no longer offer only in-person services. 

There are funding resources available to work on this critical issue.(Let us know if you want help finding them!) Lives truly depend on it.

This is significant. In one of the closing lines of the study, the researchers state that, “Another critical task for future research is to determine whether these alterations are temporary effects of the pandemic or stable changes that will characterize the current generation of youth. If these changes are found to be enduring, accounting for and interpreting data acquired during this period will require additional attention and consideration.”

We know that the pandemic has the power to define a generation. It is on us, right now, at this moment to ensure that students have access to resources they desperately need. Students are not at fault for their aging brain, but the truth is an entire generation will have lasting impacts from the pandemic, and we seize this moment to make students feel heard, and we stop thinking that the way therapy was offered when we needed it was the only way. We must use technology and brain-age/adversity appropriate strategies to help students live long and productive lives.

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