How Bullying Can Affect Brain Chemistry

Some people think that bullying is a rite of passage, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Individuals who have been bullied, particularly young people, suffer long term damage to inner working of their brains. Recent research by scientists has shown that victims of bullying suffer changes to their brain that leads to cognitive and emotional deficits, similar to children who have suffered child abuse.

Being bullied is a very stressful experience. Victims of bullying often experience anxiety, depression and suffer from low self-esteem. Some individuals even resort to drug taking to combat subsequent mental illness both during and after incidents of bullying. It has been identified by scientists that the brain changes that occur due to bullying can be responsible for these changes in behaviour. Bullying can result in long lasting changes on the developing brain, brain science is just starting to see how devastating the scars of bullying can be.

So how can bullying alter the brain? According to experts bullying alters the level of the stress hormone cortisol. Research using both animals and people show how much brain function can be altered. Klaus Miczek a psychologist from Tufts University investigated the relationship between bulling and drug abuse. He found that there are direct similarities between drug abusers and victims of bullying, as both often have experienced chronic levels of stress. Klaus Miczek conducted experiments with rodents, he modelled a bullying situation by putting an older more aggressive rodent in the cage of a younger rodent. The older rodent shows dominant behaviour by biting it to show the younger rodent that it is more dominant. Klaus Miczek found that the younger rodents had more of the stress hormone corticosterone in the areas of the brain that process rewarding stimuli, like drug abuse. Klaus Miczek also observed that there was a significantly high level of the stress hormone corticosterone that remained in the brains of the rodents long after the stress had ended. Klaus Miczek gave the rodents access to cocaine and alcohol. He found that the bullied rodents took more of the drugs than the non-bullied animals, even months later when they were adults. Interestingly Klaus Miczek discovered how little social stress it takes to lead to a persistent long-lasting effect. With the experiments carried out on rats, Klaus Miczek found that it only requires four episodes of social stress, which are five minutes longer each “And the effects of that are seen in adulthood”.

Bullying can also alter the level of stress hormones within the human brain. Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa conducted a study on the effect of bullying upon teenagers. She found that both boys and girls who had been bullied had abnormal levels of cortisol compared to their non bullied peers. Abnormally high levels of cortisol can weaken the immune system and can kill nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible involved with memory. Unsurprisingly Tracy Vaillancourt found that bullied teenagers did worse on memory tests that were designed to examine hippocampal functioning, compared to their non bullied counterparts, thus suggesting that cortisol indeed did have an impact on their brains.

It is no surprise then, that from these findings that individuals who are bullied at such a young age are deeply scarred by what they have been through.

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