News and Commentary Archive

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


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

Memory, Trauma, and Asylum Law: A Role for Neuroscience?

CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis X. Shen and research assistant Aldis H. Petriceks discusses the role neuroscience can play in the outcomes of migrants seeking asylum at the border.

Francis X. Shen and Aldis H. Petriceks | Petrie-Flom Center | December 10th, 2019

Today hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers await their hearings. Multiple studies conducted in 2019 confirmed that the conditions of detainment are often deplorable. The federal government recently acknowledged a lack of adequate medical and mental health care at the Southern Border, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a 200-page report documenting the Human Cost of Inhumane Immigration Policies, highlighting the severe damage to child and adult mental health at the border. All the while, despite public outrage and government claims to the contrary, family separation has remained prevalent.

Recent investigations into border detention facilities have revealed children sleeping in “cold cells without proper clothing or adequate food;” verbal abuse and emotional neglect; cells overcrowded with sick and unwashed children; and the constant, amplifying anxiety of children in fear of losing their parents. Beyond the border, in detention centers across the country, facilities are similarly deplorable.

According to recent studies, separately-detained immigrant children often suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, and suicidal ideation. When these children are released, they are vulnerable to long-term separation anxiety, sleep disturbance, nightmares, and decreased academic capacity.

Common sense and compassion both suggest that these consequences are troubling and unethical. But legal advocates have found common sense and compassion in short supply.

Against this background, the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) is asking a novel and important question: can neuroscientific evidence play a role in improving the conditions of confinement—and the courtroom outcomes—of asylum seekers?

The Center for Law, Brain and Behavior works at the vanguard of applied neuroscience: making neuroscience actionable for the legal community in order to ensure just and positive outcomes for all those affected by the law. We believe that better decisions, aligned with science, will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.

We promote and enable the sound application of accurate neuroscience to critical areas of the legal process: criminal trials and sentencing, juvenile justice, elder protection, and immigration enforcement and asylum.

Our work in immigration justice began in 2019. As part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the CLBB and Petrie-Flom Center, we held a kickoff event—Trauma at the Border—featuring Dr. Charles Nelson, III, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Attorney Cindy Zapata, Clinical Instructor in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program at Harvard Law School, together in dialogue surrounding the integration of science and law. Since then, we have been speaking with legal practitioners and scientists about whether—and how—neuroscience could play a larger role in promoting justice in immigration law.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

First, we are confident neuroscience offers valuable insight into the neurological harms inflicted on asylum seekers, especially children. The harms are extensive, with studies consistently demonstrating changes in brain structure, function, and connectivity resulting from childhood trauma. As just one example, childhood maltreatment—including physical, verbal, and non-verbal abuse and neglect—is associated with substantial reductions in grey matter in the hippocampus, a region of the brain tightly involved in memory and emotional regulation, and particularly susceptible to stress-related hormones.

Concurrent with these structural changes are shifts in specific neurological functions. Combined with the structural changes, these functional alterations may help explain why maltreated children—like those separately detained at the border—are more likely to suffer from PTSD, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, personality disorders, and psychosis.

Second, the neuroscience of memory has important potential to help courts better understand that inconsistencies in narrative recall are not necessarily indicative of a lack of credibility in asylum seekers. Cognitive neuroscientists are beginning to uncover the underlying neurobiology of autobiographical recall among people with emotional disorders, showing how trauma can affect memory circuits.

Yet testimonial inconsistencies still play a very large role in negative credibility findings. This gap—between the neuroscientific and courtroom understandings of memory—is one more arena where the integration of neuroscience and law can provide fresh direction toward more just legal outcomes. Neuroscience may be powerful evidence if it allows judges and asylum officers to see individual trauma through a new, brain-based lens.

This is not an unfounded hope. In a series of landmark 8th Amendment cases restricting the use of the death penalty and life without parole for juvenile offenders, the United States Supreme Court cited that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” (RoperGrahamMiller). After ten years of careful interdisciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists and lawyers, today juvenile justice litigators routinely cite neuroscientific findings in their briefs and arguments.

Our work in 2020 will further explore how attorneys representing asylum seekers may similarly find successful ways to integrate brain science into their work.

A Student’s Guide to Law and Neuroscience

On August 8th, 2019, the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior hosted a webinar offering information and resources to students interested in careers involving the intersection of law and neuroscience. The webinar was led by Exec. Dir. Dr. Francis X. Shen. You can watch the video here for free, but you have to register.

Trauma at the Border: Can Neuroscience Inform Legal Advocacy?

CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis X. Shen discusses the role neuroscience can play in the outcomes of migrants seeking asylum at the border.

Francis X. Shen | Petrie-Flom Center | February 8th, 2019

This week the House Judiciary Committee begins its formal inquiries into the Trump Administration’s separation of children from their families as part of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018.

The policy of family separation was curtailed after public outcry, but the trauma remains. Experts in developmental neuroscience have explained that the trauma of separation has likely produced long-term toxic effects on the brains of these young people.

Moreover, the trauma of separation is only one of many stressors affecting the lives of those seeking refuge and asylum. Children who witness intense violence and flee war-ravaged lands are at greater risk of psychological harm. Children at the U.S. border encounter even more trauma when they enter an immigration system where the Supreme Court has recently held that they can be detained indefinitely.

Legal advocates across the world, including law clinics like the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, are using the law to address these challenging circumstances.

In a timely panel on Monday, March 4, “Trauma at the Border,” we will explore whether and how neuroscience has a role to play in legal advocacy. Can neuroscience help frame the policy debate? In individual cases, can brain evidence be used to improve client outcomes? How can advocates most effectively and sensitively work with clients who are experiencing such significant ongoing trauma?

Addressing these and related questions will be Harvard professor Dr. Charles Nelson, III, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and Director of Research, Developmental Medicine Center, Boston Children’s Hospital; Cindy Zapata, JD, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Law School; and me, Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD, Executive Director, Harvard Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital and Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Petrie-Flom Center in Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School.

The presentations and discussions will be both scientifically rich and passionately personal. Dr. Nelson’s research on the effects of trauma on the young child’s brain has been featured in conversations about immigration policy, and Attorney Zapata led Harvard Law School students on service trip to Karnes Detention Center, where they worked with children and fathers who had been forcibly separated under the Trump administration policy.

As Executive Director of the MGH Center for Law Brain and Behavior (CLBB), which partners with the Petrie-Flom Center to produce the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, I am excited because this event reflects the CLBB’s mission to bring about systemic legal reform through innovative uses of neuroscience.

We believe that better decisions aligned with science will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.

Neuroscientists have been vocal about the toxic effects of trauma on the young brain, and legal advocates have been vigorous in their efforts to pursue justice for immigrant families. Integrating neuroscience in a responsible and strategic manner has the potential to improve legal doctrine and practice. But to realize that potential, we need more direct dialogue between neuroscience and law. This panel offers both scientists and lawyers an opportunity to kick-start that dialogue.

I hope our upcoming events marks the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, and I hope you will join us.

CLBB Directors Give Keynote Speeches at Harvard Medical School Course on Dementia

Both directors of the CLBB, Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD, and Bruce H. Price, MD, spoke at an annual Harvard Medical School course on dementia this past month. The course, named “Dementia: A Comprehensive Update,” provided four full days of instruction for medical professionals on the changing understanding of dementia in a variety of medical fields. Dr. Edersheim and Dr. Price spoke about the implications of dementia on the legal world, particularly in relation to the concepts of cognitive capacity and undue influence.

CLBB Welcomes New Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience!

We’re excited to announce our 2017–2018 Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Francis X. Shen!

Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience

The Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, now entering its fourth year, is a collaboration between the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. The collaboration includes a Senior Fellow in residence, public symposia, and a Law and Neuroscience Seminar at Harvard Law School taught by the Hon. Nancy Gertner. For more information, see the full press release on the launch of the program.

2017­–2018 Senior Fellow

Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD is the third Senior Fellow in Law and Neuroscience. Shen is currently an Associate Professor of Law and McKnight Presidential Fellow at the University of Minnesota; affiliated faculty at the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Executive Director of Education and Outreach for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. Shen received his JD from Harvard Law School, and his PhD in Government and Social Policy from Harvard.

As Senior Fellow, he will pursue original research, mentoring, and public engagement on legal issues related to the aging brain, dementia, traumatic brain injury, and the law. Activities will include expert symposia and public events to promote focused discussion on how the law can more effectively respond to aging brain issues including dementia and traumatic brain injury.

Shen’s goal during his fellowship year will be to foster this interdisciplinary dialogue on dementia and the law. The Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience will assess the utility of law’s traditional approaches to capacity and undue influence in light of emerging science on the neurobiology of dementia; consider the future legal utility and ethics of new biomarkers for dementia; and begin developing new theoretical and practical frameworks for more fairly and effectively adjudicating cases in which dementia plays a role.

Please join us in welcoming Francis Shen to the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior!

To learn more about the Project’s 2017–2018 Area of Inquiry, Dementia and the Law, visit the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience website!