News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

Could Tsarnaev Argue, ‘My Immature, Pot-Impaired Brain Made Me Do It’?

Judith Edersheim, JD, MD | WBUR CommonHealth | January 9, 2015

As the jury selection for the long-anticipated trial of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber begins, CLBB’s Co-Director and forensic psychiatrist Judith Edersheim comments on the potential use of neuroscientific evidence in Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. Originally published on WBUR’s CommonHealth.

Dr. Edersheim also appeared on Radio Boston to discuss brain science in the Tsarnaev trial on Monday, January 12. Listen here.

This week marked the start of what promises to be a four-month public reckoning: the trial of alleged Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If the press reports about the evidence against him are accurate, most of the trial will not be about guilt or innocence; it will be about sentencing. Not a who-done-it, but a why-done-it.

If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the death penalty will be on the table, and the proceedings will turn to a grave question, part jurisprudence and part moral philosophy: Is this defendant the most evil and culpable of all? A human being who deserves the most severe of all punishments?

One thing, I believe, is certain: If this case proceeds to the sentencing phase, the black box everyone will be talking about will be the cranium, and how the brain drives behavior will be the central story. Continue reading »

An Anxious Defendant or an Anxious Defense Team?

By Judith Edersheim, JD, MD; CLBB Co-director

Yesterday, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius presented himself to Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital to begin a month long psychiatric evaluation. This evaluation was ordered by the judge presiding in his case after his defense attorney called a witness to describe his mental state at the time he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Merryll Vorster testified that Mr. Pistorius suffers from a generalized anxiety disorder, and that when faced with a “fight or flight situation,” his instinct is to fight. The defense team’s introduction of this kind of evidence this late in the game opened a kind of psychiatric second front for the prosecution. Did introduction of this evidence signal that Mr. Pistorius is backing away from the claim that he acted reasonably in favor of the idea that he acted under the influence of a mental disorder? Is there credible evidence that he had a serious mental disorder and, if so, would it “count” for exculpation or mitigation? Could a closer examination of these claims “backfire” and seal Mr. Pistorius’ fate? Continue reading »

Protecting our Parents: Can Science Help?

High-profile schemes to defraud the elderly of their lifetime savings have headlined top newspapers and tabloids alike. There was Brooke Astor, whose son and attorney were convicted of criminal fraud, Anna Nicole Smith and the fight over J. Edgar Marshall’s inheritance, and Huguette Clark, a multi-billionaire who lived for years in a hospital and whose death prompted a criminal investigation into her donations and inheritance. Unfortunately, these notorious cases are merely the tip of a vast and growing iceberg of financial fraud against the elderly. In 2011, Metlife Mature Market Institute estimated an annual loss of $2.9 billion in fraud against elders. Recent surveys indicate that more than 7.3 million Americans over 65 have been victims of financial fraud. As crime rates — and vulnerable populations — increase, the scientific and legal communities must pool our ever-increasing knowledge and resources to protect elderly family members.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post, published February 21, 2014. By Bruce H. Price, MD and Ekaterina Pivovarova, PhD. Written with Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD.

For further resources on elder fraud and decision making, see the reference materials from our December 2013 event Capacity, Decision-Making and the Elderly: Brain Science Meets the Law, and follow-up article in the Boston Globe “Scammers take aim at aging population,” by event moderator and Globe reporter Kay Lazar.

 

Should Teens be Held Criminally Responsible?

By Judith Edersheim, Gene Beresin, and Steve Schlozman | September 19, 2013 | PBS’s “Brains on Trial” Science Blog 

Parents of adolescents have long recognized that teenagers have serious difficulties controlling their behaviors, following rules, and avoiding risky situations. In recent years, neuroscience has been able to provide empirical support to this postulate by identifying neural patterns in adolescents that differ from those of adults. However, incorporation of this common and scientifically-supported knowledge to legal questions has been difficult. The courts have began to recognize that maturity is an important facet to consider when deliberating about individual responsibility as it relates to adolescent.

It is also important to acknowledge that maturity is but one aspect that can impact adolescent behaviors. Additionally, experts advocate consideration of family issues, substance abuse, trauma history, academic performance, and other individual and social factors in making determinations about a teenager’s degree of responsibility. Furthermore, as with adults, some of the most important interventions will be those that can offer preventative services and proper treatment of psychiatric problems.

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.

Kids at Risk for Violence: Warning Signs of Aggression

By Gene Beresin, Steve Schlozman, and Judy Edersheim | September 17, 2013 | PBS’s Brains On Trial “Science Blog”

Some kids will become violent as adolescents. Many have a very short fuse, and explode over the smallest thing. Others, like a ticking time bomb harbor pent up anger until something pops. And then there are kids who are the scariest – the ones who silently plan to harm others and don’t just fantasize, but really hurt others, verbally or physically.

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What are the warning signs? What can we do if we spot kids early and prevent violence?

If we look at teenagers who have committed violent acts there are thousands with histories of fights, stealing, being the brunt of physical or verbal abuse, and victims of or perpetrators of bullying. Many have had depression, learning disorders, especially language problems. Most have been scapegoated and marginalized. Some were impulsive and just blew a fuse, others planned their offenses.

What can we do about this dilemma?

While we cannot easily identify which kid will be a societal danger, we should take some traits seriously, and if identified, make every attempt toward remediation.

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.