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

How Poverty Affects the Brain

CLBB Scientific Faculty Member Dr. Charles Nelson was featured in this article for his role in an unprecedented study in Bangladesh connecting poverty and child development. The study, which originated in the slums of Dhaka and is led by Shahria Hafiz Kakon, employs brain imaging to study children with stunted growth. About the study, and Dr. Nelson’s role, the article notes:

About five years ago, the Gates Foundation became interested in tracking brain development in young children living with adversity, especially stunted growth and poor nutrition. The foundation had been studying children’s responses to vaccines at Kakon’s clinic. The high rate of stunting, along with the team’s strong bonds with participants, clinched the deal.

To get the study off the ground, the foundation connected the Dhaka team with Charles Nelson, a paediatric neuroscientist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts. He had expertise in brain imaging—and in childhood adversity. In 2000, he began a study tracking the brain development of children who had grown up in harsh Romanian orphanages. Although fed and sheltered, the children had almost no stimulation, social contact or emotional support. Many have experienced long-term cognitive problems.

Nelson’s work revealed that the orphans’ brains bear marks of neglect. MRIs showed that by the age of eight, they had smaller regions of grey and white matter associated with attention and language than did children raised by their biological families. Some children who had moved from the orphanages into foster homes as toddlers were spared some of the deficits.

The children in the Dhaka study have a completely different upbringing. They are surrounded by sights, sounds and extended families who often all live together in tight quarters. It is the “opposite of kids lying in a crib, staring at a white ceiling all day”, says Nelson.

But the Bangladeshi children do deal with inadequate nutrition and sanitation. And researchers hadn’t explored the impacts of such conditions on cerebral development. There are brain-imaging studies of children growing up in poverty—which, like stunting, could be a proxy for inadequate nutrition. But these have mostly focused on high-income areas, such as the United States, Europe and Australia. No matter how poor the children there are, most have some nutritious foods, clean water and plumbing, says Nelson. Those in the Dhaka slums live and play around open canals of sewage. “There are many more kids like the kids in Dhaka around the world,” he says. “And we knew nothing about them from a brain level.”

To read more about the study and its findings, read the rest of the article, “How Poverty Affects the Brain”, published by Scientific American on July 12, 2017.

Free Will: Is Your Brain the Boss of You?

Scientific American Blogs | June 30, 2014 | Mark Fischetti

Philosophers have debated for years whether we deliberately make each of the many decisions we make every day, or if our brain does it for us, on autopilot. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that neurons in the brain initiate our response to various stimuli milliseconds before we’re even aware that we’re taking such an action.

This heady debate has hit a very practical road in the past decade: whether individuals who commit crimes are actually responsible for them. Lawyers have argued in court that if the brain determines the mind, then defendants may not be responsible for their transgressions.

Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is at the forefront of the research into free will, and its implications in courtroom trials and in the expectations of different societies. His thoughts and proclamations are captured in an engaging video called Free Will, created by Joseph LeDoux, a well-known expert on the emotional brain at New York University. The video is the second in a series he is putting together with director Alexis Gambis called My Mind’s Eye. (The first episode featured Ned Block on the mind-body problem.)

Read the rest of the article and view the video on Scientific American Blogs, or read more about Michael Gazzaniga here.

When Pain Lingers

By Frank Porreca and Theodore Price | Scientific American Mind | September 2009

Imagine you are a doctor treating a patient who has been in nearly constant pain for four years, ever since the day he sprained his ankle stepping off a curb. Physical therapy only briefly dulled the agony. Painkillers were not much better, and the most effective drugs made your patient exhausted and constipated. He is now depressed, sleeping poorly and having difficulty concentrating. As you talk with him, you realize that his thinking also seems impaired. Your exam confirms that the original injury has healed. Only pain and its consequences remain—and your options for helping this man are running out.

This scenario plays out every day in doctors’ offices around the world. Fifteen to 20 percent of adults worldwide suffer from persistent, or chronic, pain. Half the primary care patients who develop a chronic pain condition fail to recover within a year, according to surveys conducted by the World Health Organization. Common causes of such unrelenting discomfort include physical trauma, arthritis, cancer, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes that can damage nerves. In many cases, however, the pain’s origins are mysterious. Continue reading »