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

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!

Psychopaths: Cold Blood Or Broken Circuit? Inmate Brain Scans Find New Flaws

This interview with Dr. Joshua Buckholtz comes in light of his recently-published research on the brain connectivity of psychopaths within an inmate population.

By Carey Goldberg | WBUR | July 7, 2017

You might think the defining feature of psychopaths is that they’re heartless: willing and sometimes eager to inflict suffering because they lack empathy. But a new Harvard-led study out in the journal Neuron highlights a less obvious aspect of the typical psychopath: poor decision-making.

Psychopaths’ brains seem to be wired so that they are poor at taking into account how bad they’ll feel in the future about what makes them feel good in the present, the study finds. And it suggests that perhaps, at the heart of the psychopath problem, is a brain that’s poor at generating simulations — whether of other people’s feelings or of the future.

Does this let psychopaths off the hook for their anti-social actions? No, but see how you feel after you read my conversation (below, lightly edited) with the study’s senior author, Harvard associate professor Joshua Buckholtz. His research team gathered their data by trundling a mobile MRI scanner to prisons in the Midwest and scanning inmates’ brains.

Continue reading »