Researchers have found that adolescents who are bullied by their peers are at a higher risk of developing early stages of psychotic episodes. It was also discovered that a certain region of the brain, involved in emotion regulation, saw a decrease in the concentration of a crucial neurotransmitter. This finding suggests that this neurotransmitter, which is responsible for transmitting nerve impulses within the nervous system, could be a potential target for pharmaceutical interventions aimed at reducing the risk of psychotic disorders.
Psychosis is a mental state characterized by a loss of contact with reality, incoherent speech and behavior, as well as hallucinations and delusions typically seen in psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.
Recent studies examining the links between neurological and psychiatric features of certain illnesses have revealed that individuals experiencing their first episode of psychosis or suffering from treatable schizophrenia have lower levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter, in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) region of the brain. The ACC plays a crucial role in emotion regulation, decision-making, and cognitive control, while glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain, involved in various functions, including learning, memory, and mood regulation.
Changes in glutamate levels have been associated with various psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. Therefore, measuring ACC glutamate levels can provide valuable insights into the nervous system mechanisms underlying these disorders and their treatment.
So far, the changes in glutamate levels in the ACC in individuals at high risk of psychosis, and the connection between these changes and the effects of bullying on adolescents, have remained unclear.
For this reason, researchers from the University of Tokyo used Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS), a type of radiological imaging for visualizing brain structure and function, to measure glutamate levels in the ACC region of Japanese adolescents. They then measured the glutamate levels at a later time point to assess changes over time and compared these changes with experiences of, or lack of, bullying, as well as the intention of bullying victims to seek help.
Bullying victimization was tracked through questionnaires filled out by the adolescents. The researchers then used formalized psychiatric measurements to evaluate experiences of bullying victimization based on these questionnaires, determining the frequency and nature of events involving physical or verbal aggression, and also capturing their impact on overall mental health.
They found that bullying was linked to a higher degree of subclinical psychotic experiences in early adolescence – symptoms resembling psychosis but not meeting all the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia. These symptoms or experiences may include hallucinations, paranoia, or radical changes in thinking or behavior, significantly impacting well-being and functioning, even without a diagnosis of a psychotic disorder.
„Studying these subclinical psychotic experiences is important for understanding the early stages of psychotic disorders and for identifying individuals who may be at increased risk of developing a clinical psychotic illness.“
Naohiro Okada, lead author of the study and associate professor of the project at the International Research Center for Neurointelligence of the University of Tokyo (a research center under Japan’s World Premier International Research Center Initiative program)
Critically, the researchers found that higher levels of these subclinical psychotic experiences were associated with lower levels of anterior cingulate glutamate in early adolescence.
„Primarily, anti-bullying programs in schools focusing on promoting positive social interactions and reducing aggressive behaviors are essential for reducing the risk of psychosis and its subclinical precursors,“ said Okada. „These programs can help create a safe and supportive environment for all students, thereby reducing the likelihood of bullying and its negative consequences.“
Another potential intervention is to provide support and resources for adolescents who have become victims of bullying. This may include counseling services, peer support groups, and other mental health resources that can help adolescents cope with the negative effects of bullying and develop resilience.
While Okada’s group has identified a potential target for pharmacological interventions, he added that non-pharmacological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based interventions could also help combat this neurotransmitter imbalance.