News Release

Understanding the stressed, depressed, adolescent brain

Associations between pandemic stress, mood disorders, and brain organization are apparent in teenagers

Meeting Announcement

Society for Neuroscience

WASHINGTON — Advanced brain imaging techniques reveal how adolescent brain development influences, and is influenced by, factors including chronic stress and mood disorders. The findings will be presented on Monday, November 13, 11:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. EST at Neuroscience 2023, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Adolescence is a time of social, biological, and emotional changes, as well as continued brain development. Mental health among teenagers was already declining before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic introduced new challenges and stressors for children and teens, leading to the US Surgeon General declaring a mental health crisis. By leveraging cutting-edge imaging methods, researchers are investigating the relationships between chronic stress, mood disorders, and teenage brain organization and structure.

New findings show that:

  • Teen brains scanned after the COVID-19 pandemic showed structural changes typically associated with chronic stress. (Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington)
  • The organization of teenagers’ brain circuits prior to the pandemic may have impacted their emotional health and response to stress during the pandemic. (Caterina Stamoulis, Harvard University)
  • Teenagers with depression demonstrate altered connectivity in multiple brain networks compared to those without depression. (Margot Wagner, University of California, San Diego)

“The adolescent brain is still developing and vulnerable to external and internal factors,” says Elizabeth Powell, program officer, Division of Neuroscience and Behavior, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The abstracts in this group show that major stressors in teenagers’ lives, including those associated with the pandemic and mood disorders, may have significant effects on the way their brains are structured and organized, with potential implications for their mental health.”

This research was supported by national funding agencies including the National Institutes of Health and private funding organizations. Find out more about social behavior and the brain on

Monday, November 13, 2023

11:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. EST

Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Room 202B

Adolescence Press Conference Summary

  • The teenage brain undergoes changes in structure and organization as it matures.
  • Advanced brain imaging methods show that stress and mood disorders are associated with changes in brain structure, organization, and connectivity in teenagers.   

COVID-19 effects of adolescent brain structure suggest accelerated maturation
Patricia Kuhl,, Abstract PSTR451.09

  • Researchers studied the brain structure of teenagers before and after the COVID-19 pandemic using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
  • Post-pandemic teens showed abnormal, premature thinning across both hemispheres of the brain’s cortical surface.
  • While the cortex thins as part of the normal aging process, premature thinning has previously been associated with chronic stress and/or trauma.
  • This cortical thinning effect was more pronounced in females than in males.

The topological organization of developing brain circuits prior to the COVID-19 pandemic predicts adolescents’ emotions and response to stress during the pandemic
Caterina Stamoulis,, Abstract PSTR451.15

  • Researchers used data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study to investigate whether teenagers’ pre-pandemic brain circuit organization could predict emotional well-being during the pandemic.
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans showed that weaker and/or topologically fragile connections between brain regions pre-pandemic, particularly frontal areas and those supporting emotional processing, were associated with self-reports of higher stress and increased sadness during the pandemic.
  • Findings suggest that teenagers with less resilient and/or weakly connected brain circuits could be more vulnerable to the effects of pandemic stressors.

Altered functional connectivity in depressed adolescents: Insights from the ABCD Study
Margot Wagner,, Abstract PSTR098.12

  • Depression is a common mental disorder among teenagers, yet the underlying biology is not well understood.
  • Researchers applied deep learning techniques to obtain biomarkers from structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.
  • The findings showed altered patterns of functional connectivity in teenagers with depression compared to those without. These changes occurred at the whole brain level and within brain subnetworks associated with attention, thinking of the self, thinking of others, and decision making.
  • Identifying differences in the brains of teenagers with depression may help with earlier diagnosis and treatment.


The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of nearly 35,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.

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