In a new study, U.K. researchers discovered structural differences in the brains of chronically bullied teens, and these changes may increase the odds of mental illness.
The research, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is the first to show that chronic peer victimization during adolescence can impact mental health via structural brain changes.
For the study, researchers from King’s College London analyzed data, questionnaires and brain scans of 682 teens from England, Ireland, France and Germany. The participants were part of the IMAGEN long-term project that assessed the brain development and mental health of teens. As part of this project, high resolution brain scans had been taken of each participant at ages 14 and 19.
The participants also completed questionnaires at the ages of 14, 16 and 19, reporting whether they had been bullied and to what extent. Overall, the results showed that 36 of the 682 participants had experienced chronic bullying.
The data of these teens were compared with those of the others who had experienced less chronic/severe bullying. Changes in brain volume as well as the levels of depression, anxiety and hyperactivity at age 19 were taken into account.
The findings confirm and extend previous evidence linking peer victimization with mental health problems. But the new study found that bullying is linked to a reduction in the volume of brain regions known as the caudate and putamen. These changes were found to partly explain the relationship between high peer victimization and higher levels of general anxiety at age 19.
“Although not classically considered relevant to anxiety, the importance of structural changes in the putamen and caudate to the development of anxiety most likely lies in their contribution to related behaviours such as reward sensitivity, motivation, conditioning, attention, and emotional processing,” said study leader Dr. Erin Burke Quinlan.
Quinlan said it is disturbing that up to 30 percent of young people could be victimized in one way or another by their peers, with some teens having to endure such treatment on an almost daily basis.
She emphasizes that adolescence is not only a time of new experiences and stressors, but also a period of extensive brain development. Therefore, she recommends that every effort be made to limit bullying before it becomes a severe problem that could lead to changes in a young person’s brain and the development of mental health issues.