October 13, 2021

Adolescents may face many challenges throughout their teenage years, from depression and poor body image to loneliness and even substance abuse. To help address and limit these concerns, researchers are continually looking for connections between the human brain, environment and mental health.

The impact of COVID-19 on adolescent mental health is especially important to address following the social isolation intended to limit the spread of the virus. Yerkes National Primate Research Center neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s research on the effect of isolation on adolescent mice will be a resource to researchers studying how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected children.

Gourley’s research provides insights into adolescent brain mechanisms. She and her research team discovered mice that have a history of social isolation have higher dendritic spine densities in regions of the brain relevant to decision-making, such as the prefrontal cortex. Social isolation interferes with the pruning of dendritic spines, the structures that underlie connections between neurons.

While we typically think more of something is better, this is not the case for dendritic spines. Instead, such elevated levels related to social adversity experienced during sensitive adolescent periods lead to long-term consequences, despite a typical social environment later in life.

Gourley says, “our findings suggest adolescence is a critical period during which social experience optimizes one’s ability to seek and attain goals later in life.”

Interrupting social experiences may translate into poor choices about homework, food and even hygiene, and that makes Gourley’s research critical now and in the future to help her team and other researchers counter additional, long-term impacts of COVID-19.

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