Bullying Creates Chemical Changes in Brain

Bullying is the collective term for a group of physical, verbal and social behaviors meant to intimidate, control or manipulate others. Current evidence indicates that victims of bullying have significantly increased risks for a number of serious mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. In a new study published in August 2013 in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania identified a mechanism inside the brain that contributes to the intensity of bullying-related anxiety and depression. In the future, understanding of this mechanism may help doctors and researchers develop new treatments for counteracting bullying’s negative mental health impact.

Bullying Basics

Bullying produces its damaging effects by repeatedly exposing targeted individuals to demeaning, degrading or dangerous actions from other people. Common tactics employed by bullies include physical assaults (which may or may not include actual violence), verbal assaults and social actions such as rumor-spreading or intentional social isolation. Some victims of bullying never bully others; however, a significant minority of victims—known as bully-victims—goes on to perpetrate bullying-related acts. Bullying affects roughly one out of every five U.S. high school students, the National Bullying Prevention Center reports. Numbers among middle school (junior high school) students and developmentally disabled students are even higher. Most bullying victims never tell an adult about their experiences.

Mental Health Effects

In a study published in 2013 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from Duke University examined the long-term mental health impact of bullying exposure among a group of over 1,400 U.S. preteens and teenagers. After reviewing their findings, these researchers concluded that, when bullying victims reach early adulthood, they have substantially increased risks for developing three different conditions classified as anxiety disorders: panic disorder, agoraphobia and generalized anxiety disorder. In early adulthood, former combined bully-victims have substantially increased risks for developing agoraphobia and panic disorder, as well as major depression. Male combined bully-victims also have increased risks for suicidal thinking, suicide planning and suicide attempts.

When exposed to bullying, people already affected by major depression or any other condition classified as a mood disorder (such as bipolar I disorder or persistent depressive disorder) often have unusually intense reactions, the authors of the study in The Journal of Neuroscience explain. In turn, these intense reactions to bullying can contribute to a further worsening of an individual’s mental health by increasing the chances that he or she will withdraw from social contact or develop medically serious anxiety symptoms. Previously, no one knew why depressed people react to bullying in such harmful ways.

New Findings

In the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the University of Pennsylvania researchers used laboratory experiments on mice to explore the brain mechanisms for bullying’s damaging effects on mental health. Because of certain key similarities between mice brains and human brains, mice often stand in for humans in these types of experiments, which would be considered unethical or premature if conducted on human beings. The researchers focused on nerve cells in the brain that respond to the presence of a specific internally produced chemical, called GABA. When exposed to situations designed to mimic the human experience of bullying, targeted mice experienced an unusual increase in the activity of their GABA-sensitive nerve cells. In turn, this unusual activation led to a cascade effect inside the brain that triggered social withdrawal and the onset of anxiety symptoms.


In mice, the chemical pathways in the brain that trigger damaging reactions to bullying are different than the pathways that lead to the onset of depression not related to bullying. If this same situation holds true in human beings, it may help explain why some depressed people (presumably unaffected by bullying) respond well to standard antidepressant treatment, while others do not. (Even at the upper range of their effectiveness, modern antidepressants only provide adequate relief for roughly half of all patients who use them.) The authors of the study in The Journal of Neuroscience believe that they are the first researchers to demonstrate how the impact of a highly stressful experience such as bullying can trigger damaging changes inside the brain that lead to specific mental health problems. They also believe that future researchers and pharmaceutical experts can use their findings to help devise new, improved treatments that take the impact of bullying into account when dealing with the presence of depression or other forms of serious mental illness.

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