Pre-Pandemic Brain Wiring Predicted Teen Mental Health During COVID

Summary: A large study using pre-pandemic brain scans of adolescents reveals that brain wiring before COVID-19 predicted mental health outcomes during the pandemic.

Adolescents with stronger connections within the brain’s “salience network,” responsible for emotion and reward processing, demonstrated greater resilience to stress and negative emotions. Conversely, weaker connections in the prefrontal cortex and other areas linked to emotional processing were associated with higher levels of stress and sadness.

These findings highlight the importance of understanding individual brain differences in predicting and addressing mental health vulnerabilities during challenging times.

Key Facts:

  • Pre-pandemic brain wiring predicted adolescent mental health during COVID-19.
  • Stronger “salience network” connections were linked to better mental health.
  • Weaker connections in the prefrontal cortex and other areas were associated with increased stress and sadness.

Source: Children’s Hospital Boston

The COVID-19 pandemic was challenging for many adolescents, disrupting their schooling and social/emotional development.

Drawing on national data, a large study finds that how adolescents’ brains were wired before the pandemic predicted their stress, negative emotions, and overall mental health during its height— making them more vulnerable or more resilient.

The findings, reported in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help target behavioral therapies to the brain circuits and functions most affected, says study leader Caterina Stamoulis, Ph.D., who heads the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

This shows a young girl's head.
Conversely, weaker and less robust connections in certain parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, were associated with higher stress and sadness during the pandemic. Credit: Neuroscience News

With support from the National Science Foundation, Stamoulis and research assistant Linfeng Hu analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from 2,600 adolescents averaging 12 years of age, collected an average of seven months before the pandemic.

The data came from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study; adolescents with known neuropsychiatric or neurodevelopmental disorders were excluded.

From May 2020 to May 2021, when COVID-19 was at its peak, the ABCD study surveyed the adolescents every two to three months about their overall mental health. Stamoulis and Hu compared their responses against the fMRI data.

“We found that there were specific brain circuits whose organization could predict adolescents’ survey responses,” says Stamoulis.

Greater robustness of the brain’s “salience network”—which plays a central role in emotion, reward, and pain processing and regulation—seemed to confer emotional resilience during the pandemic.

The researchers found that stronger, better-organized connections between brain regions predicted better self-reported mental health.

Conversely, weaker and less robust connections in certain parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, were associated with higher stress and sadness during the pandemic.

“The prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped in early adolescence and is actively undergoing changes, making it especially vulnerable to external stressors,” Stamoulis notes.

Lower connectivity and strength of circuits involving the amygdala and thalamus—both linked to emotional processing and regulation—also predicted more stress and sadness.

Findings were similar for circuits involving the basal ganglia and striatum, also linked to emotion processing. These structures and networks, too, are developing rapidly in adolescence.

“By identifying the prefrontal cortex as a vulnerable area, and the salience network as vulnerable, we have established specific circuits we can follow over time,” says Stamoulis.

“We know that these circuits support reward processing, emotional processing, pain, and motivating signals. Those functions could be targeted in designing behavioral therapies.”

About this mental health, neuroscience, and COVID-19 research news

Author: Caterina Stamoulis
Source: Children’s Hospital Boston
Contact: Caterina Stamoulis – Children’s Hospital Boston
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Strength and resilience of developing brain circuits predict adolescent emotional and stress responses during the COVID-19 pandemic” by Caterina Stamoulis et al. Cerebral Cortex


Strength and resilience of developing brain circuits predict adolescent emotional and stress responses during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound but incompletely understood adverse effects on youth.

To elucidate the role of brain circuits in how adolescents responded to the pandemic’s stressors, we investigated their prepandemic organization as a predictor of mental/emotional health in the first ~15 months of the pandemic.

We analyzed resting-state networks from n = 2,641 adolescents [median age (interquartile range) = 144.0 (13.0) months, 47.7% females] in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, and longitudinal assessments of mental health, stress, sadness, and positive affect, collected every 2 to 3 months from May 2020 to May 2021.

Topological resilience and/or network strength predicted overall mental health, stress and sadness (but not positive affect), at multiple time points, but primarily in December 2020 and May 2021.

Higher resilience of the salience network predicted better mental health in December 2020 (β = 0.19, 95% CI = [0.06, 0.31], P = 0.01). Lower connectivity of left salience, reward, limbic, and prefrontal cortex and its thalamic, striatal, amygdala connections, predicted higher stress (β = −0.46 to −0.20, CI = [−0.72, −0.07], P < 0.03).

Lower bilateral robustness (higher fragility) and/or connectivity of these networks predicted higher sadness in December 2020 and May 2021 (β = −0.514 to −0.19, CI = [−0.81, −0.05], P < 0.04).

These findings suggest that the organization of brain circuits may have played a critical role in adolescent stress and mental/emotional health during the pandemic.

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