Adolescence is recognized as a high-risk period for developing anxiety and depression. And COVID-19, with the social isolation, reduced activity and disruptions it brings, could make this an especially vulnerable time for teens.
But for BrainsCAN fellow Pan Liu, the pandemic brings an opportunity to improve the identification of those teens most at risk for mental health problems, and to provide insights for developing prevention and intervention strategies.
Liu studies normative and maladaptive patterns in adolescents’ emotional processing and development, and how this knowledge informs prevention and intervention for anxiety and depression.
“The advantage of this pandemic for my research is that it offers a relatively more objective indicator of a large-scale stressor that impacts the entire population,” Liu said. “It is easier to quantify: when there’s a lockdown, it is a lockdown for all of us.”
As a member of psychology professor Elizabeth Hayden’s Lifespan Study of Emotion and Personality lab (LEAP), Liu also has access to pre-pandemic data from a youth cohort Hayden has been following for 12 years who are now, on average, 14 to 15 years old.
Having access to both pre- and post-pandemic behaviour and brain data of one consistent cohort gives her a unique vantage point for studying changes in emotion processing and brain functions before, during and (ultimately) after the pandemic.
“To understand the potentially causal relationship between risk factors and ultimate mental health outcomes, it is necessary to have this type of longitudinal data,” Liu said.
She recently received a BrainsCAN accelerator grant to collect new behavioural and brain data from the adolescents to examine their adaptation and responses to pandemic-related stress, and hopes her findings will show the longitudinal associations between risk factors, such as exposure to stressors, and the teens’ adaptations and mental health issues. This could lead to the ability to identify vulnerable teens and families early enough to prevent the onset of mental illness and to develop effective preventions and interventions.
“We’re interested in looking at whether the experiences of the pandemic would impact the development of certain brain functions,” Liu said. “For example, a certain pattern of the pre-pandemic brain activity might be a marker of early risk or early vulnerability and might predict teens’ responses during the pandemic. They might be more anxious or more depressed. This adaptation during the pandemic may in turn predict their brain function after the pandemic.”
The sample subgroup Liu is studying includes 29 teens who have been identified as having a higher risk of depression based on their mothers’ history of depression. “The literature shows the mother’s history of depression is a very well-established risk factor for their offspring’s depression,” she said.
The subgroup also contains more than 50 adolescents without a maternal lifetime history of depression, allowing Liu to compare their pandemic responses with those in the high-risk group.
With current lockdown protocols preventing the teens coming to campus for their MRI scans, Liu and her team are collecting new behavioural data through online questionnaires to teens and their parents. Questions focus on a range of issues including home environment, parents’ employment, social activities and, more recently, attitudes toward vaccines and mask wearing. Semi-structured phone interviews in which the teens and their parents share their experiences, moods and behaviours will provide complementary information.
Collecting these data will allow Liu to study the associations between youth experiences during the pandemic and their brain functions, which will inform how the pandemic-related stress impacts their brain development and mental health.
Early findings show mothers with a history of depression showed greater depression symptoms during the pandemic, which in turn predicts greater depressive symptoms in their children.
“The mothers’ symptoms play a mediating role,” Liu said. “They may be buffering the child from the stress or they may be making things worse. Maybe helping these mothers would be a reasonable way to prevent their children from developing depressive symptoms.”
With the support of the BrainsCAN grant, Hayden said Liu’s research is playing a critical role in discovering how adolescent brain development influences individual differences in stress response.
“We probably can all relate to noticing over the past year how the people we know vary in coping with the stress we’re all experiencing,” Hayden said. “Dr. Liu’s research is uniquely positioned to provide the scientific community with a fuller understanding of the brain-based mechanisms that may help us better comprehend why some people adapt more readily than others to environmental stressors, which can ultimately inform early interventions to help adolescents cope, not just with COVID-related stress but stressful life events in general.”