A new European study has revealed an alarming correlation between persistent bullying and potential mal-development of teenage brains, besides simply causing psychological trauma.
“We found that the relationship between chronic peer victimisation is an umbrella term. That includes bullying, relates to the development of anxiety partly via changes in the volume of brain structures,” said Erin Burke Quinlan, author of the study and coordinator of a long-term project called IMAGEN.
This project, headed by the Centre for Population Neuroscience and Precision Medicine at King’s College London, aims to explore a possible link between teenage brain development and mental health.
This is, with findings published in the current issue of Molecular Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Nature Publishing Group.
The study collected brain scans and mental health questionnaires of 682 teenagers aged 14 to 19 from England, Ireland, France and Germany.
After comparing the 36 (about 5 per cent) chronically bullied participants to the less bullied ones, the researchers noticed a major difference in the size of their brains.
An apparent shrinking has been observed in two parts of the brain called the putamen and the caudate, which are particularly involved in the regulation of motivation, attention and emotional processing.
Such an alteration is oddly reminiscent of adults who have experienced early life stress, for example childhood maltreatment, mostly at the highest when a child turns 19.
However, researchers are not sure if the brain shrinkage is permanent or if it may be reversible.
Such shrinkage eventually appears to create a growing sense of anxiety, even after taking into account the possible onset of other mental health concerns, such as stress and depression, according to the study.
“We don’t know how early in life these brain changes begin, however the earlier bullying is identified, and the sooner it can be dealt with, the better,” Quinlan said.
The research should underscore the importance of efforts to reduce bullying at the individual and school levels.
Similarly, a mental health professional could be useful to help a child pull through (such trauma).