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Pre-pandemic brain wiring predicts adolescent mental health during COVID

Summary: A large study using pre-pandemic brain scans of adolescents finds 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 processing emotions and rewards, 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 to predict and address mental health vulnerabilities during difficult times.

Highlights:

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

Source: Boston Children’s Hospital

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for many adolescents, disrupting their schooling and social/emotional development.

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

The results, reported in the journal Cerebral cortexcould help target behavioral therapies to the most affected brain circuits and functions, says study leader Caterina Stamoulis, Ph.D., who directs the Computational Neuroscience Lab in the Division of Adolescent and Youth Medicine adults at Boston Children’s Hospital.

It shows the head of a young girl.
Conversely, weaker and less robust connections in parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, have been 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 with an average age of 12, collected an average of seven months before the pandemic.

Data come 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 adolescents every two to three months about their overall mental health. Stamoulis and Hu compared their responses to the fMRI data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results were similar for circuits involving the basal ganglia and striatum, also linked to emotion processing. These structures and networks also develop rapidly during adolescence.

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

“We know that these circuits support reward processing, emotion processing, pain and motivational signals. These functions could be targeted in the design of behavioral therapies.

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

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

Original research: Free access.
“Strength and resilience of developing brain circuits predict adolescents’ emotional and stress responses during the COVID-19 pandemic” by Caterina Stamoulis et al. Cerebral cortex


Abstract

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

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound, but poorly understood, detrimental effects on young people.

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

We analyzed the resting state networks of not= 2,641 adolescents (median (interquartile range) age = 144.0 (13.0) months, 47.7% female) in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study and Longitudinal Assessments of Mental Health, stress, sadness and positive emotions, 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 salience network resilience 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 and amygdala connections predicted higher stress (β = −0.46 to −0.20, CI = (−0 .72, −0.07), P.

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.

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

News Source : neurosciencenews.com
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