Is the brain of boys and girls changing because of the pandemic?


From what we know so far, covid-19 has hardly any major neurological consequences when those infected are boys and girls. However, that doesn’t mean your brain will come out of the pandemic unscathed. Especially since the restrictions we impose on them could affect the development of their brain. And, with it, to his subsequent mental life, since it is in the brain, in its neural connections, where all our behaviors are generated and managed.

The delicate balance between routines and novelties

We like routines, because they give us confidence. But we also enjoy novelties, since they are a source of new challenges and stimuli. That’s why we combine routines with novelties.

Let us now think for a moment about what we have routinely done today, and about the margin we have had to introduce desired innovations, those that bring us well-being. And let’s compare it with what we did three years ago, for example, in January 2019. Surely there are differences that are very obvious to us.

Without going any further, three years ago no one went out with a mask, nor did they consider taking an antigen test (a test for what? We would have asked), nor did they count how many people could sit together on a bar terrace.

We were also not aware of whether we had to telecommute or had to go to work in person, or whether the classroom of our sons and daughters was going to be quarantined.

Possibly, three years ago we would have met friends during the weekend or after work, to have a coffee or a drink, without considering how many we were going to be. And we would have taken our sons and daughters to the park or to their favorite extracurricular activities more often.

The covid-19 pandemic has changed our routines and the possibilities we have to modify them in the desired way, for pleasure. It has changed for adults, but also for girls and boys. The question is: can these changes, produced by the necessary management of the pandemic, affect the development of their brain?

The neurodevelopment of “the children of the pandemic”

Since the pandemic began to date, around a hundred scientific papers have been published, in addition to various reports from other institutions, from the OECD to UNESCO .

From a strictly medical perspective, in some severe cases, infection with the virus that causes covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, can cause neurological problems in certain people. What, in the case of affecting girls or boys, could interfere with their neurodevelopment. However, the medical evidence collected to date indicates that boys and girls are not the most affected by covid-19. Also, in most cases the symptoms they have are mild in nature.

What may not be so light is how the restrictions we impose on them (to contain the spread of the pandemic and limit hospitalizations) will affect their brain development. And, with it, to his subsequent mental life, since it is in the brain, in its neural connections, where all our behaviors are generated and managed.

We cannot ignore the fact that, to date, 188 countries have imposed school closures across the country at one point or another during the pandemic, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and young people.

Anxiety, stress and anger are chewing in the air

Social distancing, the use of masks, the limitation of the number of people in social gatherings, quarantines and confinements have taken a toll on people’s well -being . All studies to date identify a general increase in anxiety, stress, sadness, depression and even anger. In fact, a correlation between the duration of lockdowns and quarantines and the manifestation of post-traumatic stress symptoms has recently been detected .

Of course, some people are more affected than others, depending on their temperament and the support they receive from their environment. But it is palpable in society as a whole. And also, thinking about childhood, it has been proven that these moods are ” spread ” from parents to children.

All of these behavioral and emotional responses are consistent with human idiosyncrasies. We are a social species, so any restriction to social encounters increases the level of anxiety, stress and sadness.

To this is added that the fear of getting sick or that our loved ones get sick also increases these parameters. And it can generate reactions of anger, not being able to deal adequately with the situation. That they are consistent does not imply that they are exempt from consequences in the medium and long term, especially in girls and boys.

The reason is simple: the brain builds its neural networks through interactions with the environment. So any environmental change affects the construction of the brain. This is what is called neuronal plasticity , and it is maximum during childhood. For this reason, childhood is the stage of life in which environmental factors influence us the most, with the first three years of life being the most vulnerable .

Emotions under the mask

Without going any further, during early childhood girls and boys learn what emotions are and how they express themselves. They do it by observing the faces of adults. Well, the use of masks decreases this learning. And it has even been seen that it makes it difficult to learn the language. This will undoubtedly have consequences for their future, although it is difficult to predict how far they will go.

Another important aspect is the reduction in the time that boys and girls spend playing with other boys and girls, both due to social restrictions and the suppression or reduction of extracurricular activities. Playing with their peers is crucial for a healthy and balanced development of their brain. Not only do key aspects like socialization work, but gaming has even been seen to improve brain function and is one of the key ways they learn to cope with unexpected future situations. And that also includes aspects related to resilience.

To all this we should add contact with nature and the outdoors, which has also been seen to be crucial for balanced neurodevelopment during childhood.

Adversities and lack of emotional support

On the other hand, nobody disputes that the pandemic is generating adverse situations. And it turns out that the more adverse experiences you have during childhood, the greater the risk of delays in cognitive development . And it also increases the likelihood that mental health problems will manifest in adolescence and adulthood, such as substance abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, obsessive-compulsive syndrome and other psychiatric conditions.

One of the pillars to overcome adversity is the interaction between people, which provides emotional support. But, precisely, many of the measures adopted, such as lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions on social gatherings, seriously compromise these interactions. It is the whiting that bites its tail.

This fact affects the well-being of boys and girls, even harming the consolidation of the Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs ) promoted by the United Nations, many of which focus on children, as highlighted by UNICEF in a report recent.

Protect the vulnerable

It is not about being alarmist, far from it. We must take advantage of the scientific knowledge derived from this and other work to prevent the most vulnerable people, those who may end up with the most lasting consequences, girls and boys, from seeing their mental life harmed by the restrictions that adults impose on them, by the social changes that derive from these restrictions and from the fears that, often without realizing it, we transmit to them.

In the end, it is about encouraging them to continue socializing, keeping the educational centers and the activities they carry out open as much as possible. And always supporting them emotionally, avoiding transferring our anxiety and fears to them.

Author Bio: David Bueno i Torrens is Professor and Researcher of the Section of Biomedical, Evolutionary and Developmental Genetics. Director of the Chair of Neuroeducation UB-EDU1ST at the University of Barcelona