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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

’Bullied Brains’ Scientists Offer Harvard Lecture

By Kilian Melloy -

Sexual and physical abuse can impact a child’s developing brain. New research shows that bullying can be just as neurologically damaging.
Sexual and physical abuse can impact 
a child’s developing brain. New research 
shows that bullying can be just as 
neurologically damaging.

Neuroscientists have started to understand that children who are sexually and physically abused can be affected at the deepest level, with the structures of their developing brains being affected by early life traumas.

Now scientists are starting to realize that similar signs of neurological impact show up when kids suffer another form of abuse--the psychological abuse that is part and parcel of bullying.

A Nov. 28, 2010 Boston Globe article noted that this revelation could lead to new forms of prevention and treatment for those whose lives have been impacted by bullying.

"Over the past two decades, neuroscientists have marshaled plenty of evidence that serious physical and sexual abuse during early childhood can short-circuit normal brain development," the Globe reported.

The article said that McLean Hospital’s Dr. Martin Teicher began to look at the neurological impact of verbal abuse in childhood, and discovered that it could be just as damaging as sexual and physical abuse when delivered by parents.

"We decided to look at peer victimization," Teicher told the Globe--which is to say, bullying. Teicher’s findings, published last summer in The American Journal of Psychiatry, found that bullying is "a substantial early stressor," and medical imaging scans he performed of bullied young people’s brains showed indications of structural changes that could affect brain function.

Those tantalizing results could offer insight into why bullied kids--like those subjected to other forms of abuse--are more prone to a host of mental and emotional problems, including depression and drug abuse.

"There may be some subtle neurocognitive difficulties," Teicher told the Globe. "We’re currently doing research that will allow us to answer this question better."

Teicher will be part of a presentation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on March 2 that addresses issues regarding the "bullied brain" and the damaging consequences of abuse at the hands of peers.

The event, called Bullying and Bias: Brain, Behavior and Community Approaches, is scheduled for 12:00-1:30 p.m. at Larsen Hall, Room 203, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"The highly-publicized suicides of numerous LGBTQ youth have recently
wrenched the topic of bullying--particularly bias-based bullying--into the
spotlight," a media release for the event says. "Amid the clamor of concern from politicians, celebrities and teachers, what insight can academics, researchers and health practitioners offer into the causes, effects and prevention of bullying?

"Join three distinguished researchers with expertise in the area of bullying and bias at this dialog," the release continues. "Each guest will make a short presentation regarding their work, before inviting questions and discussion. At a time when not a month goes by without a new report of a bullying-related suicide, there has never been a more important moment to discuss and address this issue."

"The event brings together three top researchers to give their perspective on why bullying happens, the effects it has on young people, and how we might prevent it," even organizer James Croft told EDGE.

Joining Dr. Teicher at the event will be Renee M. Johnson, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health; and Renee M. Johnson, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

"Prof. Poteat explores how prejudice develops through socialization patterns within groups, and how prejudice develops through the lifespan," Croft told EDGE. "Prof. Johnson is concerned with youth violence, including violence to the self, from a community health perspective. So each speaker brings their individual insight to help explore the phenomenon of bullying through different lenses.

"This will hopefully enable us to understand bullying better, and therefore to challenge it more successfully when it occurs," Croft added.
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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