It’s been known that bullying has negative psychological effects on teenagers; but now, research suggests that it may even have a physical impact on their brains.
A study published in Springer Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry journal suggests that teenagers who experience chronic bullying may have structural brain changes that could increase their chances of developing mental illnesses. This research was led by Dr Erin Burke Quinlan from King’s College London.
Dr. Quinlan and her team analysed information brought by 682 teenage participants from England, France, Germany and Ireland. The participants were enrolled in IMAGEN, a long-term European project studying adolescent brain development and mental health.
The participant information used in the study included questionnaires, brain scans as well as other data. The participants’ high-resolution brain scans were taken when they were 14 and at 19 years old respectively.
They were also given questionnaires to complete at ages 14, 16 and 19 that asked about their experiences of being bullied. Out of the 682 participants, 36 were found to have faced long-term bullying. The data from those 36 was compared with that of the other participants, whose bullying experiences were less severe or chronic.
The research team also noted the differences seen in the participants’ data at age 19 that included changes to their brain volume as well as their anxiety, depression and hyperactivity levels.
The data collected from the participants at age 19 fell in line with existing studies that linked bullying from peers with mental health problems.
But the finding in this study that was considered new to the researchers was the link between bullying and volume reduction in the parts of the brain known as the putamen and caudate. These structural changes are thought to partially explain the link between bullying and the increased general anxiety levels found in the participants at age 19.
Dr Quinlan says that the changes in those areas have not always been associated with anxiety, but also adds that they most likely affect it because of their effects on related behaviours like reward, sensitivity, motivation and emotional processing.
The take-home message
In addition to expressing her concern at the prevalence of bullying, Dr Quinlan says that bullying needs to be monitored and eliminated and recommends that maximum effort goes into achieving that. She also says that intervention is important because substantial brain development takes place in adolescent years and that severe bullying can negatively affect the brain’s growth and lead to mental health problems later in life.
By Tesneem Ayoub