Can bullying lead to structural changes in the brain?

Consistent bullying can take a great mental toll on teenagers. A new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found those who are regularly victimized may be sustaining physical changes to the brain.

In the study, researchers from King’s College London in the U.K. analyzed data, questionnaires and brain scans of 682 patients from England, Ireland, France and Germany. As part of the IMAGEN long-term project, participants underwent high-resolution brain scans at 14 and 19 years old. They also completed a questionnaire at the ages of 14, 16 and 19, asking whether they had been bullied and the severity of such treatment.

Thirty-six of the participants reported experiencing chronic bullying. Data from this group was compared to those who said they had experienced less severe treatment. The authors also looked at brain volume, levels of depression, anxiety and hyperactivity at age 19.

Overall, results linked bullying to decreases in the volume of areas of the brain called the caudate and putamen.

"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 behaviors such as reward sensitivity, motivation, conditioning, attention, and emotional processing," said Burke Quinlan, with King’s College London, in a prepared statement.

Quinlan stressed that adolescence is a critical period for brain development, and serious efforts to limit bullying before it becomes severe can help maintain positive structural brain growth and ultimately prevent the development of mental health issues.