Arts & Sciences Brain development/Law/Policy School of Medicine

The bullied brain


The TV show “Survivor,” now in its 39th season, has spawned hosts of spin-offs and adaptations. Most cater to reality-TV lovers worldwide, but one surprising variation has become part of the toolbox researchers use to understand the effects of bullying on adolescents.

Bullying is known to be a risk factor for depression, especially among young people, but scientists still know little about how that link really works. Does being bullied cause changes in the brain? Do experiences of peer victimization (the technical term for bullying) change kids’ social behavior, which in turn might lead to depression? Neither? Both? Brent Rappaport, a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, recently carried out a study examining these issues.

According to Rappaport, questions about the brain and about behavior often fall into separate research camps. “Right now, it feels like those fields have operated somewhat independently of one another. The neuroimagers do their thing, and the behaviorists do their thing,” Rappaport explained. “There have been theories that bullying can lead to changes in the brain, and theories that bullying leads to changes in the way people behave and interact with their peers. I like the idea of bringing those together and trying to say – maybe it’s both.”

In order to bridge this divide, Rappaport collaborated with researchers at Washington University and around the country. He worked with his advisor, Deanna Barch, the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry, and Joan Luby, director of the Early Emotional Development Program, along with other researchers at WashU. Autumn Kujawa at Vanderbilt University, who originally developed the Survivor-esque computer task, worked with Rappaport to modify adapt the program for his needs. Kodi Arfer, a research scientist out of UCLA, provided additional assistance with coding and troubleshooting and organizing data. Emily Kappenman, an EEG expert from San Diego State University, provided assistance and insight in the interpretation of the findings. With this national cohort of support, Rappaport was able to move forward with the project.

The study participants, a group of 56 adolescents around 18 years old, were recruited from a long-term project led by Barch and Luby that tracks a number of data points, including experiences of bullying over time. In Rappaport’s study, participants were asked to play a computer game with other adolescents around the country. After each round, the teens voted on whether to keep other players in the game or kick them out. The game simulates the kinds of acceptance and rejection that regularly happens in social situations, but in this scenario, every teenager wore an array of electrodes – allowing the researchers to see players’ behaviors and brain signals over the course of the game. “You can look at the EEG signal when they see a specific stimulus,” said Rappaport, “and in our case, being accepted or being rejected was the stimulus.”

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