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

Approaching Aging Federal Judges in America

CLBB Executive Director Francis Shen was interviewed on his forthcoming law review article, which addresses the challenge of cognitive decline in aging state and federal judges. Francis notes:

“The challenge is particularly difficult because each individual’s brain ages differently. While an 80-year old judge is at significantly greater risk for dementia than a 50-year old judge, it does not follow that all 80-year old judges have diminished cognitive capacities, nor that all 50-year old judges are free from dementia. To successfully meet the challenge of aging judges requires individualized assessment.”

And he suggests:

“My proposal is straightforward: we ought to require testing (at least every 5 years) of judges, but we should also require that the results of the testing remain fully confidential and private, with no exceptions. Privacy is important because it empowers judges, is less likely to become politicized, and can be administered outside of media scrutiny. There are many possible tests, and combinations of tests, that could be administered.”

On the role of neuroscience:

“New tools, including neuroimaging, may allow us to better differentiate between different aging brains, and also to identify pathology earlier than we have been able to do in the past. These advances should allow judges to better understand how their brains are aging and to act proactively.”

Read the full article, “Approaching Aging Federal Judges in America: Interview with Francis X. Shen”, from the Ohio State Law Journal on November 26, 2019.

3 Hours of Exercise a Week May Lower Your Depression Risk

The New York Times reported on a recently published study from CLBB affiliated faculty member Dr. Jordan Smoller’s lab, which found observational evidence to suggest that physical activity is related to mental health, regardless of genetic vulnerability. The study was featured prominently in the article:

“So, for the new study, which was published this month in Depression and Anxiety, researchers at Harvard University and other institutions decided to look into those issues. They began by turning to a trove of health data gathered for the ongoing Partners Biobank study. It contains records for thousands of men and women in the greater Boston area who have provided DNA samples and opened their electronic health records to investigators.

The researchers pulled the records of almost 8,000 of these men and women who had filled out a questionnaire about exercise habits. It asked them to recall how much time each week during the past year they had spent in a variety of activities. Those activities included walking, whether for exercise or transportation, running, biking, using exercise machines, or attending dance or yoga classes.

The researchers then examined the men’s and women’s DNA, looking for genetic variations believed to increase the risk for depression, and scored their volunteers as being at high, moderate or low inherited risk for depression.

They also checked each person’s medical records for codes indicating a diagnosis of depression, either before they joined the biobank or for two years afterward.

Then the researchers crosschecked all of this data and soon noted several interesting and consistent patterns. Perhaps least surprising, those men and women harboring a high genetic risk for depression were more likely, in general, to develop depression than volunteers with low risk scores.

At the same time, physically active people had less risk than people who rarely moved, and the type of exercise barely mattered. If someone spent at least three hours a week participating in any activity, whether it was vigorous, such as running, or gentler, like yoga or walking, he or she was less likely to become depressed than sedentary volunteers, and the risk fell another 17 percent with each additional 30 minutes or so of daily activity.

This link between movement and improved mental health held true for people who had experienced depression in the past. If they reported exercising now, their risk for a subsequent episode of depression fell, compared to the risks for inactive people with a history of depression.

Exercise also substantially altered the risk calculus for people whose DNA predisposed them to depression. If they carried multiple worrisome gene snippets but often exercised, they were no more likely to develop depression than inactive people with little genetic risk.

In effect, physical activity “neutralized” much of the added risk for people born with a propensity for depression, says Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the new study.

Exercise did not erase the risk of depression for everyone, she continues. Some active people developed depression. But exercise buffered the risks, even for people born with a predilection for the condition.

This kind of observational study cannot show us, though, if being physically active directly causes people to remain mentally healthy, only that exercise and mental health are linked. It also relied on people’s memories of how much they had exercised recently, which can be notoriously unreliable. In addition, it looked at preventing depression, not treating it.

Despite those caveats, the results suggest that “physical activity of many kinds seems to have beneficial effects” for mental health, says Dr. Jordan Smoller, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.”

Read the full article, “3 Hours of Exercise a Week May Lower Your Depression Risk”, published by the New York Times on November 20, 2019.

CLBB in the Classroom in Spring 2020

CLBB affiliated faculty are offering classes in the intersections of neuroscience, law and ethics this semester. Read below for more information on these exciting opportunities to learn from the country’s leading thinkers in law and neuroscience.

Law and Neuroscience at Harvard Law School

The flagship seminar is Law and Neuroscience, open to Harvard Law School students. Law and Neuroscience is taught by Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.), Senior Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and CLBB Managing Director. The seminar features a world-class roster of CLBB affiliated faculty and guest scientists to help explore core topics in law and neuroscience. CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judy Edersheim, JD, MD and CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD, will be in class each session to provide medical and legal perspectives.

Course Type: Harvard Law School Seminar (2 credits)
Meeting Time: Thursdays, 5:15 – 7:15 pm
Instructor: Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.)

Description: What’s going on inside the minds of criminal defendants? And what about the judges, jurors, and attorneys who adjudicate them? Are addicts responsible? Can violent offenders be rehabilitated? Do we have free will? How can neuroscience inform criminal sentencing? This seminar on law and neuroscience explores questions such as these through the innovative lens of modern neuroscience. The seminar features guest lectures by world-leading experts in neuroscience, and explores how criminal law’s ancient assumptions about human decision-making, emotions, and memory are increasingly being challenged by modern neuroscience through novel evidence and innovative legal arguments. Students will explore the legal implications of the neuroscience of hate, love, memory, lying, trauma, stress, violence, addiction, false confessions, adolescence, juvenile justice, and much more. We will look critically at efforts to use neuroimaging in court, and this will necessarily lead us to consider the relationship between law and science, more generally, and neuroscience in particular. The seminar will develop legal writing skills, as well as prepare students for engagement with expert testimony, criminal law and procedure, and complex litigation involving science and law.

Confirmed guest speakers include: Dr. Judith Edersheim, JD, MD, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital; Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD, co-author of the first casebook on Law and Neuroscience; Dr. Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Attorney Marsha Levick, JD, Chief Legal Officer and Co-Founder, Juvenile Law Center; Dr. Leah Somerville, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University;  Dr. Roger Weiss, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University; Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Dr. Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD, MGH Trustees Endowed Chair in Psychiatric Neuroscience; and Adam Haar Horowitz, MIT Department of Cognitive Science, MIT Media Lab.

Enrollment in this seminar is available for Harvard Law School students. Students interested should email Judge Gertner.

Neuroethics at Harvard Medical School

For students in the Masters of Bioethics program and for medical students at Harvard Medical School, directed by CLBB Director of Law & Ethics Dr. Rebecca Weintraub Brendel, MD, JD, there is an option to enroll in Neuroethics, co-taught by Dr. Joe Giacino, PhD and CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD.

Course Type: Masters in Bioethics Seminar (2 credits)
Meeting Time: Thursdays, 2:00 – 3:45 pm Eastern Instructors: Dr. Joe Giacino and Dr. Francis Shen

Description: This seminar-style course undertakes a survey of the ethical issues related to current and future neurotechnologies. These include such topics as consciousness, selfhood, and free will; human-computer interaction (including artificial intelligence and deep learning); brain-computer interfaces; the use of neuroscience in the courts; and cognitive enhancement. The course covers many topics related to medical care for patients with neurological disorders, including disorders of consciousness, deciding for others, preclinical imaging and genetic testing for patients with neurological disorders, and clinical research on neural engineering devices.
Confirmed guest speakers include Dr. Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD on brain-machine interface, Dr. Robert Troug, MD on brain death, and Dr. Justin Baker, MD, PhD and Dr. Benjamin Silverman, MD on deep phenotyping.

Masters in Bioethics students and Harvard Medical School students interested in this course should email Dr. Shen

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.