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Bullied teens may show early signs of psychosis, study suggests

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A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Tokyo has revealed a link between teenage bullying and early psychotic episodes.

Key findings: The study, published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, found that adolescents who experience bullying are at a heightened risk of developing subclinical psychotic experiences, which are symptoms resembling psychosis (hallucinations and delusions, among others) but do not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.

Additionally, these adolescents have lower levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter crucial for regulating emotions.

How the study was conducted: The researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure glutamate levels in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) region of the brain of more than 200 adolescents living in the Tokyo metropolitan area from October 2013 to February 2016, and later from April 2016 to March 2018. Using questionnaires, they collected data on bullying experiences during the first time period and subclinical psychotic experiences in both periods.

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What the researchers are saying: Lead author Naohiro Okada emphasized the importance of understanding subclinical psychotic experiences as early indicators of psychotic disorders, which include schizophrenia. He believes anti-bullying programs, counseling services, peer support groups and non-pharmacological solutions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based interventions can help.

“First and foremost, anti-bullying programs in schools that focus on promoting positive social interactions and reducing aggressive behaviors are essential for their own sake and to reduce the risk of psychosis and its subclinical precursors,” Okada said in a press release. “These programs can help create a safe and supportive environment for all students, reducing the likelihood of bullying and its negative consequences.”

Moving forward: The researchers detailed several limitations in their paper, including a small sample size for a group composed of those who were bullied but did not seek help. They recommended directions future studies can take, such as determining the extent and accuracy of the link between early adolescent psychotic experiences and being at high risk for or having a first episode of psychosis.

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