Teens who are often bullied may be left with shrinkage in key parts of their brain, increasing their risk for mental illness, European researchers report.
They said 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/or depression.
"We don’t know how early in life these brain changes begin," said study author Erin Burke Quinlan. "But the earlier bullying is identified, and the sooner it can be dealt with, the better."
Her team analyzed brain scans of nearly 700 14- to 19-year-olds in England, Ireland, France and Germany. The teens were part of a long-term project called IMAGEN that is studying adolescent brain development and mental health.
"We found that the relationship between chronic peer victimization — an umbrella term that includes bullying — relates to the development of anxiety partly via changes in the volume of brain structures," said Quinlan, an IMAGEN project coordinator at the Center for Population Neuroscience and Precision Medicine at King’s College London.
Researchers aren’t sure if the bullied teens’ brain shrinkage is permanent or if it may be reversible.