Study tracks individuals’ risk or resilience to mental health disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the world closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world experienced profound psychological distress to varying degrees. Now, a new study takes advantage of the unique situation and has longitudinally investigated the demographic, neurobiological and psychological factors that have contributed to individuals’ risk or resilience to stress-related mental health disruptions.

The study appears in Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimagingpublished by Elsevier.

Although “resilience” is a broad term with many connotations, the authors describe it as an individual’s ability to resist the negative impacts of disease, stress or trauma, in line with a recently proposed definition. Psychological factors, such as coping skills, help people protect themselves from harmful experiences and are associated with resilience to trauma.

The researchers evaluated data from over 2,000 participants collected under the Barcelona Brain Health Initiative. They analyzed the change in participants’ anxiety and depression symptoms from two years before to during the first year of the pandemic. The researchers analyzed the data to identify participants with resilience, which they defined here as the lack of development of anxiety or depression during the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, all participants reported normal or mild symptoms and, in terms of resilience measures, reported medium to high coping skills and low to moderate stress levels. Across the sample, scores reflecting depressive and anxiety symptoms increased, particularly in women, but changes were mediated by individual differences in coping skills and perceived stress.

Resilience has also been linked in previous studies to structural and functional characteristics of specific brain areas and circuits, including the default mode network (DMN), which is associated with mental wandering activity. To examine these influences, the researchers used brain imaging data that had been collected on more than 400 participants before the pandemic. The data showed that brain connectivity within the DMN explained much of individual resilience and psychological influences on mental health.

Our results show that psychological aspects such as coping strategies should be considered in the context of each individual biological complexity. We found evidence that specific brain network configurations (such as DMN) were significant for understanding stress responses, even years later, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the combination of individual psychological factors and specific biological substrates can predict the risk of vulnerability to symptoms of anxiety and depression during a prolonged stressor. “

David Bartrés-Faz, PhD, senior author of the study, University of Barcelona

Cameron Carter, MD, editor of Biological psychiatry: Cognitive neuroscience and neuroimagingsaid of the study, “While we are in the early stages of being able to characterize brain network function and relate it to individual differences, the results of this study surprisingly suggest that the state of the DMN, known to be associated a emotional processing, as well as self-referential memory, can provide contextual support during stressful experiences that can contribute to healthy coping and better mental health outcomes. “


Journal reference:

Cabello-Toscano, M., et al. (2022) Functional brain connectivity before the COVID-19 epidemic moderates the effects of coping and perceived stress on changes in mental health. A first-year follow-up study on the COVID-19 pandemic. Biological Psychiatry Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

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