Stanford study: stress due to COVID-19 lockdown physically aged teens’ brains


Elliot Smith

Archie Williams junior Luca Bartolomi found in-person schooling a difficult adjustment after a year of online instruction.

On Dec. 1, 2022, Stanford University published a study exploring trauma due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its effect on the aging of teens’ brains. According to the study, adolescents and children who experienced intense stress during COVID-19-related lockdowns exhibit sped up brain development. 

Ian Gotlib, a Psychology Professor at Stanford and an author of the study, took MRI scans from a cohort of 163 children before and during the pandemic. According to Gotlib, the brain scans showed that the developmental process of certain sections of the brain, particularly in the cortex and the amygdala, quickened during the COVID-19 lockdowns. While this is a natural occurrence during puberty, Gotlib says that this mismatch between one’s brain age and their chronological age only occurs in times of intense stress, such as neglect, family dysfunction, or violence.

According to Gotlib, it is a possibility that these brain changes were an immediate response to stress and will stabilize over time. He and his team plan to scan their subjects later on to track their progress. For now, the permanence of the changes and their effects on adolescents’ demeanor and mental health are uncertain.

“It might be the case that the brains of kids who are 16 or 17 today are not comparable to those of their counterparts just a few years ago,” Gotlib said in Stanford University’s article.

Danya Moss PsyD. is a clinical psychologist in Corte Madera, who works primarily with young patients. In response to the pandemic, she says her patients show more resilience, resourcefulness, and self-discovery. 

“The pandemic has caused children to have to grow up faster, but they’re also, in some ways, growing up slower,” Moss said. “It’s as if the innocent bubble burst.”

Wellness outreach specialist, Danya Axelrad-Hausman, stands in the main room of the Wellness Center in room 113. (Elliot Smith)

Danya Axelrad-Hausman, the Wellness outreach specialist, agrees with Moss, and believes that the COVID-19 pandemic presented a special set of challenges for young adults.   

“Everyone is dealing with what’s age appropriate to be dealing with at this age, [and teens may have] less inner resources to cope because of the collective trauma we’ve all been through,” Axelrad-Hausman said. 

Additionally, Axelrad-Hausman says that due to COVID-19 lockdowns, teens missed out on formative social experiences, which may make interaction with others more difficult. 

“[Underclassmen] didn’t have some formative years in middle school where they were learning things and figuring things out socially,”

— Danya Axelrad-Hausman

Luca Bartolomi, a junior at Archie Williams, struggled to stay in communication with teachers during the lockdown. 

“I never really understood how much more helpful it was to talk to my teachers face to face about problems with schoolwork, and I really felt the stress of communication via email or over zoom whenever I did try to communicate in those ways,” said Luca. 

After returning to in-person school, Luca found adjusting to regular social interaction difficult.  

“One of the more [notable] ways I’ve changed was the difficulty of having or starting a normal conversation [after coming back from social isolation],” Luca said. “I always felt like my first day of high school was the first day of sophomore year, because it was the first time I had been to high school in person.”

Lucy Bakowski, an Archie Williams sophomore, says virtual school helped her appreciate her normal school routine. 

“Zoom made my whole life feel like it was just a little box on a screen… Being isolated from friends and social activities made my mental health worse,” said sophomore Lucy Bakowski. “I realized how much I treasure just small interactions with people, like saying ‘hey’ in the halls or getting to make people smile and laugh, which would be so frequently overlooked if it weren’t for COVID.”

While pandemic-related shutdowns may be a thing of the past, Gotlib anticipates that lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic there may lead to unanticipated repercussions. 

“Just because the shutdown ended doesn’t mean we’re fine,” Gotlib said in Stanford Universitys article.