The Neuroscience of Bullying

It turns out teens share an important neurobiological flag for stress with infants and toddlers. Elevated levels of the hormone cortisol present under conditions of both physical and verbal abuse hurts teen brains, too.

A recent study by brain scientist Martin Teicher, a Boston-area neuroscientist, shows that older children subjected to persistent verbal bullying by their peers or adults at school showed the same kinds of abnormalities as kids who were physically harmed. The study, published earlier this year, demonstrated that when all other factors for abuse were not an issue, verbal abuse was significantly linked with higher rates of depression, anxiety, or hostility, and victims of taunting or belittling tended to be more vulnerable to drug abuse.

A second researcher’s work explores how bullied boys between the ages of 11-14 suffer ill effects in memory and other cognitive abilities, which can hurt their achievement at school. Tracy Vaillancourt of the University of Ottawa speculates that

cortisol may, in fact, underlie many of the adverse effects of bullying: It can weaken the functioning of the immune system, and at high levels can damage and even kill neurons in the hippocampus, potentially leading to memory problems that could make academics more difficult. Indeed, Vaillancourt has already found that teens who are bullied perform worse on tests of verbal memory than their peers. One of her next studies involves trying to get at this question directly: She will be putting some of her subjects, now ages 16 and 17, into an MRI machine to look for evidence of damage to the hippocampus.

The hippocampus typical governs long-term memory and in older people is commonly affected first when Alzheimer strikes. The corpus callosum, the part of the brain found affected in Teicher’s work, connects the halves of the brain together.

In the short-term, bullied children show cognitive damage and a tendency toward poor school performance. In the long term, cumulative brain trauma can lead, some psychiatrists to diagnose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in adults, depending on the severity and duration of the childhood bullying. This is a crucial insight–just as we know physical abuse by adults creates lasting damage in children, it’s becoming clearer that verbal or emotional abuse by a child’s peers is enough to create lasting, measurable damage in a child even as she or he grows older.

One such teen, who was diagnosed with PTSD after prolonged homophobic bullying, successfully sued his school district for failing to stop or punish his tormentors.

Neurological research on verbal and other abuse in the landmark case Nabozny v. Podlesny, along with the moral and legal obligation of schools to provide safe environments for all students, should convince parents and schools to act with urgency to stop cruel words from escalating into sticks and stones and lifelong ill-effects on the brain.

Cynthia Liu writes about education and social justice at

Photo Credit: wikimedia commons


Serena P.
Serena P7 years ago

I was bullied in school since we moved to a new state 24 years ago. Then, to make matters worse, when my sister moved up here 16 years ago, she did the same thing-not only was I taunted at school, I was taunted at home. I had absolutely NO escape. Not all bullies are bullied at home, so I have to disagree with that. My sister was, for some reason, insecure and therefore took it out on me (not to mention the fact that I was 14 and she was 24-even going so far as to not let me in the house when I would come home from school sometimes).

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman7 years ago

thanx for posting

Sundeep Shah
Sundeep Shah7 years ago

thanks for sharing

Petra Luna
Petra Luna7 years ago

Bullying, like intimidation, is a form of abuse. It hurts just as much as verbal abuse.

Donna R.
Donna R7 years ago

Such good info in the article and the comments. The only clear thing about bullying is it has to stop. School is a starting place, but it basic human kindness must be emphasized at home, as well.

Mary L.
Mary L7 years ago

Surprise! One more bit of evidence for anti bullying programs.

Ronald Ellsworth
Ronald E7 years ago

Surprise! Kids get bad habits from...their PARENTS! And they rebel when you try to teach them good habits. Human nature, and the extremes are carried in the genes.

Chris C.
Chris C7 years ago

Rob & Jay B...thanks for your comment!

Myriam Garcon
Myriam G7 years ago

I think more celebrities should speak out against bullying. People like professional football players, singers, actors and the like can have a great effect on young minds. If teen idols speak out against bullying, or talk about the devasting effect bullying has had on their lives, whether they were bullied or were bullies, I'm sure children and teens would listen. In Montréal, there is a (timid) program with the professional football team Alouettes. They haven't moved mountains yet, but they definitely set a trend.

Doug D.
Douglas D7 years ago

Unfortunately the bullies are often being bullied at home. Maybe it's the parents who need to be punished.