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Lockdown impacted brain development in young people

What effect did the lockdown have on young people? Leiden researchers started a study of this in the first year of the covid pandemic. They discovered an impact on the development of the brain areas involved in social behaviour. The researchers published their discovery in Scientific Reports at Nature.com.

The covid pandemic is still very recent but a lot of research is already being done on the mental effects of the lockdown. The Leiden Consortium Individual Development (L-CID), affiliated to the Institute of Psychology, conducts long-term research on brain development in young people. As part of this research, the team also conducted a sub-study specifically on the covid period. Neurobiologist Yara Toenders is one of the researchers involved: 'For this covid research, we focus on adolescents aged 9 to 13. This age phase is very important for the social development of the brain. For younger children the family is central, but it is at this age that the social world expands and friends become more important. Lockdown brought social isolation and stress, which can be expected to leave traces. The results of our research show that the lockdown did indeed have an impact on the way young people's brains develop.' The article Effects of COVID‑19 pandemic on structural brain development in early adolescence  has been published in Scienctific Reports, a publication of Nature Publishing.

Influence on the social brain

The research team discovered that areas in the brain that play a major role in social behaviour  underwent more rapid development during the pandemic. This  was particularly the case with the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Toenders: ‘After childhood, the thickness of the cortex decreases, which is part of normal brain development. In our subjects, we saw that the thickness decreased at an accelerated rate. Accelerated development was also visible in the hippocampus, which is sensitive to such effects as stress.’ She emphasises that further research is needed. 'At this moment, we only know that there is an effect on the brain, but not what that effect means for young people's behaviour. It could be that the brain is trying to age faster so that it can keep up with the changing environment, but the acceleration could also be due to stress and social constraints.’

‘Accelerated development was also seen in the hippocampus, which is sensitive to such effects as stress.’

Long-term research on twins

The study on the impact of the covid pandemic is unique because it follows young people over a longer period of time. Next year, test subjects will come to the laboratory again for MRI scans and behavioural tests. 'We are conducting research on a large group of twins aged 4 to 14 years that we follow as part of the long-term L-CID study. Every year we collect neurobiological data and behavioural data from the group so that we can map the development of their social behaviour. Before covid, we had already collected data from one of the subgroups in line with the standard schedule. At that time, of course, we didn’t know that the pandemic was imminent. Then, during the covid period, we also collected data from the group experiencing the lockdown. So it was actually a coincidence that we were able to do this particular study.'

Repair may be possible

Incidentally, one of the brain regions studied also showed signs suggesting that the brain may be able to recover from such a period of impairment. As the pandemic lasted longer, a return to normality was visible. Toenders: 'That’s hopeful. We already know that the brain is growing and plastic, but this possible recovery after a negative effect is very important information, not only for us, but also for other scientists working on brain resilience. We’re going to investigate exactly what aspects of the lockdown had an effect: the absence of friends, the stress or possibly other positive changes that may have been present at the time, such as more opportunities for rest. That knowledge will give us a better understanding of how to act if something similar occurs in the future.’

The article Effects of COVID‑19 pandemic on structural brain development in early adolescence  was published on 5 April in Scienctific Reports, a publication of Nature Publishing.

The research team of the Leiden Consortium Individual Development is headed by Professor Eveline Crone; Lina van Drunen conducted the research as part of her PhD project. Lara Wierenga and Yara Toenders are also members of the research group. For more information: developmentmatters.nl and brainanddevelopment.nl

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