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

The Terrible Teens

By Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker | August 31, 2015

C57BL/6J mice are black, with pink ears and long pink tails. Inbred for the purposes of experimentation, they exhibit a number of infelicitous traits, including a susceptibility to obesity, a taste for morphine, and a tendency to nibble off their cage mates’ hair. They’re also tipplers. Given access to ethanol, C57BL/6J mice routinely suck away until the point that, were they to get behind the wheel of a Stuart Little-size roadster, they’d get pulled over for D.U.I.

Not long ago, a team of researchers at Temple University decided to take advantage of C57BL/6Js’ bad habits to test a hunch. They gathered eighty-six mice and placed them in Plexiglas cages, either singly or in groups of three. Then they spiked the water with ethanol and videotaped the results.

Half of the test mice were four weeks old, which, in murine terms, qualifies them as adolescents. The other half were twelve-week-old adults. When the researchers watched the videos, they found that the youngsters had, on average, outdrunk their elders. More striking still was the pattern of consumption. Young male C57BL/6Js who were alone drank roughly the same amount as adult males. But adolescent males with cage mates went on a bender; they spent, on average, twice as much time drinking as solo boy mice and about thirty per cent more time than solo girls.

The researchers published the results in the journal Developmental Science. In their paper, they noted that it was “not possible” to conduct a similar study on human adolescents, owing to the obvious ethical concerns. But, of course, similar experiments are performed all the time, under far less controlled circumstances. Just ask any college dean. Or ask a teen-ager. I happen to have three adolescent sons and in this way recently learned about a supposedly fun pastime known as a “case race.” Participants form teams of two and compete to see which pair can drink its way through a case of beer the fastest. (To get the most out of the experience, I was told, it’s best to use a “thirty rack.”)

Every adult has gone through adolescence, and studies have shown that if you ask people to look back on their lives they will disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five. (This phenomenon is called the “reminiscence bump.”) And yet, to adults, the adolescent mind is a mystery—a Brigadoon-like place that’s at once vivid and inaccessible. Why would anyone volunteer to down fifteen beers in a row? Under what circumstances could Edward Fortyhands, an activity that involves having two forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor affixed to your hands with duct tape, be construed as enjoyable? And what goes for drinking games also goes for hooking up with strangers, jumping from high places into shallow pools, and steering a car with your knees. At moments of extreme exasperation, parents may think that there’s something wrong with their teen-agers’ brains. Which, according to recent books on adolescence, there is.  Continue reading »

A New Way to Reform the Judicial System

By Douglas Starr | The New Yorker | March 31, 2015

Last year, the district attorney’s office in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, blew a case. The chairman of the county’s Republican Party, Robert J. Kerns, had been accused of rape by a woman who worked at his law firm. The woman said that Kerns had offered her a ride after an alcohol-fuelled office party. Along the way, she said, he gave her wine and raped her in his Mercedes, and then again in her home. Hospital reports showed bruising consistent with a sexual assault, and DNA on the woman’s underwear was consistent with Kerns’s profile. A key piece of evidence was a urine test apparently showing the presence of Zolpidem, commonly known as Ambien. Prosecutors secured a grand-jury indictment on more than a dozen criminal counts, including rape and aggravated indecent assault. Afterward, they held a press conference.

Several months later, a toxicologist hired by Kerns’s defense took a closer look at the lab report. Although the word “Zolpidem” appeared, what the document indicated was that the test had detected “less than” five nanograms per milliliter, which in this case was zero. Kerns’s lawyer got in touch with the prosecuting attorneys, who were horrified to realize that they had misinterpreted the findings—a rookie mistake.

“It was a huge embarrassment,” Risa Ferman, Montgomery County’s district attorney, told me. She and her staff had plenty of evidence that Kerns had committed a sexual assault, but, because the drugging was written into the indictment, they had to drop charges and refer the case to the Commonwealth’s Attorney General’s office. A newspaper called the incident a “fiasco.” Continue reading »

You Have No Idea What Happened

By Maria Konnikova | The New Yorker | February 4, 2015

R.T. first heard about the Challenger explosion as she and her roommate sat watching television in their Emory University dorm room. A news flash came across the screen, shocking them both. R. T., visibly upset, raced upstairs to tell another friend the news. Then she called her parents. Two and a half years after the event, she remembered it as if it were yesterday: the TV, the terrible news, the call home. She could say with absolute certainty that that’s precisely how it happened. Except, it turns out, none of what she remembered was accurate.

R. T. was a student in a class taught by Ulric Neisser, a cognitive psychologist who had begun studying memory in the seventies. Early in his career, Neisser became fascinated by the concept of flashbulb memories—the times when a shocking, emotional event seems to leave a particularly vivid imprint on the mind. William James had described such impressions, in 1890, as “so exciting emotionally as almost to leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues.” Continue reading »

Before the Law

By Jennifer Gonnerman | The New Yorker | October 6, 2014

In the early hours of Saturday, May 15, 2010, ten days before his seventeenth birthday, Kalief Browder and a friend were returning home from a party in the Belmont section of the Bronx. They walked along Arthur Avenue, the main street of Little Italy, past bakeries and cafés with their metal shutters pulled down for the night. As they passed East 186th Street, Browder saw a police car driving toward them. More squad cars arrived, and soon Browder and his friend found themselves squinting in the glare of a police spotlight. An officer said that a man had just reported that they had robbed him. “I didn’t rob anybody,” Browder replied. “You can check my pockets.”

The officers searched him and his friend but found nothing. As Browder recalls, one of the officers walked back to his car, where the alleged victim was, and returned with a new story: the man said that they had robbed him not that night but two weeks earlier. The police handcuffed the teens and pressed them into the back of a squad car. “What am I being charged for?” Browder asked. “I didn’t do anything!” He remembers an officer telling them, “We’re just going to take you to the precinct. Most likely you can go home.” Browder whispered to his friend, “Are you sure you didn’t do anything?” His friend insisted that he hadn’t. Continue reading »