Persistent bullying could lead to a structural deformation in the brains of teenagers, according to a new study. Bullying is a serious problem for many children and teens that can cause myriad of problems in later life, including long-term impacts on mental health.

Despite the knowledge of its dangers, the biological relationships between bullying and issues in later life such as depression and anxiety are largely unknown.

According to the authors of the new study, their research is the first to suggest that bullying during adolescence can cause social and mental health issues by altering the shape of the brain.

The research involved an analysis of 682 young people from England, France, Ireland and Germany between the ages of 14 – 19. Over the course of the study, participants were given brain scans, and asked to fill out questionnaires detailing the extent of the bullying they received.

Thirty-six of the youngsters reported that they had experienced chronic bullying. The researchers compared the data collected on these extreme cases to that of participants that had endured a less intense level of harassment.

The team discovered that isolated regions in the brains of the severely bullied participants had shrunk significantly. These sections of the brain, known as the putamen and caudate contribute to behavioral processes including reward sensitivity, attention span, and emotional processing.

A degradation to these areas occurring at such a vital formative period in a young person's life, during which their brains physically grow and mature, could explain the heightened levels of anxiety experienced by 19-year-olds who had been heavily bullied.

In light of the findings, the international team of researchers behind the study stresses that every possible step should be taken to stamp out chronic bullying to prevent deviations in brain formation that could lead to mental illness later in life.

The study has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.