Bullied Teens Face Higher Risk Of Psychotic Disorders

A new study is issuing a dire warning when it comes to bullying. Teenagers who are bullied have a higher risk of developing the early stages of psychotic episodes, highlighting a significant impact on the levels of a crucial neurotransmitter in the brain. This discovery points to the potential for developing targeted treatments to prevent psychotic disorders.

Psychosis, a condition where individuals lose touch with reality, often presenting with hallucinations and delusions, is a severe psychiatric condition seen in disorders like schizophrenia. The study, conducted by the University of Tokyo, delves into the relationship between the experiences of bullying in adolescents and alterations in brain chemistry, specifically focusing on glutamate levels in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain. The ACC is pivotal in regulating emotions, decision-making, and cognitive control.

Teens bullying student
Teenagers who are bullied have a higher risk of developing the early stages of psychotic episodes. (© motortion – stock.adobe.com)

Glutamate, the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain, is essential for various functions including learning, memory, and mood regulation. It plays a significant role in neurological and psychiatric disorders, with alterations in its levels being linked to conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. Thus, understanding glutamate levels provides insights into the nervous system’s mechanisms and potential treatment pathways.

The Tokyo-based research team utilized magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a sophisticated imaging technique, to measure and track glutamate levels in the ACC region of Japanese adolescents. This method allowed the researchers to observe changes over time and correlate these changes with the adolescents’ experiences of bullying and their mental health outcomes.

The findings revealed that adolescents subjected to bullying showed higher levels of subclinical psychotic experiences. These experiences, which are symptoms indicative of psychosis but not meeting the clinical diagnosis criteria, can significantly impact an individual’s well-being and functioning. Symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, and drastic changes in thinking or behavior.

“Studying these subclinical psychotic experiences is important for us to understand the early stages of psychotic disorders and for identifying individuals who may be at increased risk for developing a clinical psychotic illness later on,” says study lead author Naohiro Okada, project associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s International Research Center for Neurointelligence, in a university release.

The study suggests that bullying is associated with lower levels of glutamate in the ACC during early adolescence, linking social stressors with neurochemical changes in the brain.

“First and foremost, anti-bullying programs in schools that focus on promoting positive social interactions and reducing aggressive behaviors are essential for their own sake and to reduce the risk of psychosis and its subclinical precursors,” explains Okada. “These programs can help create a safe and supportive environment for all students, reducing the likelihood of bullying and its negative consequences.”

students bullying
Teenagers who are bullied have a higher risk of developing the early stages of psychotic episodes. (Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels)

In addition to advocating for anti-bullying efforts, the research suggests that providing support and resources for bullied adolescents could be crucial. Counseling, peer support groups, and other mental health services can aid in coping with the effects of bullying and building resilience.

While identifying glutamate as a target for potential pharmaceutical interventions to reduce the risk of psychotic disorders, Okada also points to the importance of nonpharmacological interventions. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based interventions could address neurotransmitter imbalances, offering a comprehensive approach to treatment.

This study not only sheds light on the neurochemical effects of bullying but also opens the door for developing targeted interventions to support adolescents’ mental health and prevent the progression of psychotic disorders.

The study is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

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