Bullying Causes Stress, Anxiety Disorders, Study Finds

Filed under: In The News, Bullying

bullying

If mice can feel it, we can, too. Credit: Corbis

Looking for clues to what happens to your kid after a mean girl beat down? Mickey, Minnie and their mouse friends could shed some light on the stress caused by schoolyard bullies.

Researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York have uncovered that bullying has measurable effects on brain chemistry, according to a university release. Mice that were bullied persistently by the murine version of mean boys (dominant males) grew progressively anxious and had a heightened sensitivity to vasopressin, a hormone involved in a variety of social behaviors.

In other words, rodents have feelings, too. When other mice torment them, they get nervous and stressed out.

The findings suggest the chronic stress produced by bullying mice could lead to the same symptoms associated with stress disorders in humans who've been taunted, according to the release.

The molecular symptoms produced in mice have been implicated in human disorders, such as social phobias, depression, schizophrenia and autism, Yoav Litvin, a postdoctoral fellow in Mind, Brain and Behavior, says in the release.

Litvin, along with colleagues in the Donald Pfaff Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior, set up a rough-and-tumble school yard scenario in which a young mouse is placed in a cage with a series of larger older mice over the course of 10 days. The mice, being territorial, fight it out in a contest that the new arrival invariably loses. Following a 10-minute battle, the mice are separated in the same cage by a partition that keeps them physically apart, but allows them to see, smell and hear one another, a stressful experience for the loser. The findings were reported in Physiology & Behavior.

After a day of rest, the traumatized mice were put in the company of non-threatening mice of comparable size and age, but they kept their distance and would not socialize with their fellow mice.

The mice that had lost their battles were also more likely to "freeze" in place for longer periods of time and to frequently display "risk assessment" behaviors toward their new cage-mates, according to the release. The researchers then studied the brains of the mice and found a surge in the hormone associated with anxiety disorders.

The findings suggest kids who have been bullied might get some relief from the stress with medication.

"The identification of brain neuroendocrine systems that are affected by stress opens the door for possible pharmacological interventions," Litvin says in the release. "Additionally, studies have shown that the formation and maintenance of positive social relationships may heal some of the damage of bullying."

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