Bullied kids more at risk for mental illness

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When it comes to mental illness, many health experts argue that genetics play the strongest role.

But a recent study suggests that environment--specifically for developing children--can also be a factor.

Changes in gene structure

Research at the University of Montreal found that bullying can change the inherent structure of a gene that is responsible for controlling mood--which, in turn, can make children more susceptible to mental health problems as they get older. The study included 28 pairs of identical twins whose average age was around 10. In each pair, one twin had experienced bullying, while the other had not.

“Many people think that our genes are immutable, however this study suggests that environment, even the social environment, can affect their functioning,” said Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, Ph.D., a researcher at the Hôpital Louis-H. Lafontaine.

Stress hormones and serotonin

Ouellet-Morin notes that negative bullying experiences in childhood can alter the stress respsonse and the way genes function where mood is concerned. The study found that, in addition to having lower levels of cortisol--a stress hormone--children who are bullied also experience a change in the gene that is responsible for serotonin.

It appears that the very act of being victimized, according to the research, can alter how a child's brain deals with stress and adapts. Ouellet-Morin explains:

“Since they were identical twins living in the same conditions, changes in the chemical structure surrounding the gene cannot be explained by genetics or family environment. Our results suggest that victimization experiences are the source of these changes.”

The study can be found in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Source: Psych Central