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

Here’s How To Responsibly Talk About Mental Health In The Public Eye

CLBB’s Director of Law & Ethics, Dr. Rebecca Brendel, comments on the consequences of speculating about the mental health of public figures. The “Goldwater rule”, an ethical guideline that encourages mental health professionals to avoid such speculation, has recently been the subject of popular conversation as various mental health experts argue that Donald Trump demonstrates characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder. Dr. Brendel notes:

“Engaging in a psychiatric diagnosis requires the consent of the individual and is based on an in-person evaluation.”

“Rendering an opinion based on observed behavior in the public sphere doesn’t take into account underlying factors that may not be inherently seen,” she continued. “There’s also the potential of discouraging those with mental illness from seeking treatment out of concern that they might be talked about publicly.”

She goes on to argue:

“Mental illnesses are medical illnesses, for which there is sound psychiatric care available. Anyone with mental illness should have confidence in the integrity of their physicians.”

“Someone can have a diagnosis of depression for example, but that doesn’t mean it affects their ability to hold any kind of public responsibility.” 

Read the full article, “Here’s How To Responsibly Talk About Mental Health In The Public Eye”, published by The Huffington Post on July 25, 2017.

New Neuro Tech Might Be Perfect Evidence for Courtrooms

The Minnesota Daily features a recent study by CLBB Senior Fellow, Dr. Francis Shen, on the influence of memory-testing on jurors’ opinions. The article notes:

As memory-testing technology becomes increasingly common in courthouses and police precincts, one University of Minnesota law professor is testing the gizmos to prevent misuse.

Professor Francis Shen and a team of neuroscience and law students published a report in June showing jurors trust evidence from new memory-testing technology enough to merit its implementation, but not so much that it threatens to over-influence their vote.

When it comes to introducing new neuro-technology to courts and police houses, Shen said, hitting this legal sweet spot is key.

The technology in question, Electroencephalography Memory Recognition (EEG), is used to detect if a subject recognizes a given image or word by tracking activity in memory hotspots of the brain through a skull cap equipped with sensors, said Emily Twedell, a research professional on the project.

The technology works as a more accurate and specialized lie detector, and could help lawyers or police determine if a subject is lying about recognizing unique stolen property, a victim or a crime scene, Shen said.

“The idea is that law can do its job more effectively with the advent of new technology,” Shen said. “But of course, we have to prevent inappropriate uses.”

Shen said neuroscientists and law officials alike are hesitant to implement EEG for fear of misinforming jurors.

Because neither jurors nor law officials are trained in neuroscience, they could be “seduced” by EEG results they don’t understand — that’s where Shen’s team comes in.

To learn about the study’s design and findings, read the full article, “New Neuro Tech Might Be Perfect Evidence for Courtrooms, U Study Shows”, published in the Minnesota Daily on July 12, 2017.

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.

The Brains Of Psychopaths May Be Wired Differently Than Yours Or Mine

The Huffington Post highlights recently-published research by CLBB’s Dr. Joshua Buckholtz on the brain connectivity of psychopaths. In dispelling various misconceptions about psychopathy, the article notes:

Traditionally, scientists have seen psychopaths as “these cold-blooded, emotionless predators” who “do all of these terrible, terrible things because they don’t feel emotions” like the rest of us do, said Joshua Buckholtz, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University.

The new study, published July 5 in the journal Neuron, suggests the problem may not simply be their emotional capacity. 

About the study’s findings, Dr. Buckholtz notes:

“We know that the brain is networked,” Buckholtz said. “Individual regions don’t work in isolation, and there are lots of really exquisite and nuanced patterns of regulatory control all throughout the brain.”

Researchers mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions of the brain, and found that inmates with higher levels of psychopathy had weaker connections between the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is associated with decision-making focused on the future.

Those two results together, Buckholtz said, suggest that psychopaths have “something of a broken regulatory circuit.”

To read more about the study’s design and conclusions, read the full article, “The Brains Of Psychopaths May Be Wired Differently Than Yours Or Mine”, published by The Huffington Post on July 5, 2017.

The Making Of Emotions, From Pleasurable Fear To Bittersweet Relief

Part of the ongoing coverage of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

CLBB’s Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett is interviewed by NPR after being featured on the scientific podcast, Invisibilia. She discusses the theory of emotions presented in her latest book, How Emotions Are Made, noting, “[the “classical view” of emotions] matches the way that many of us experience emotion, as if something’s happening outside of our control. But the problem with this set of ideas is that the data don’t support them. There’s a lot of evidence which challenges this view from every domain of science that’s ever studied it.” Continue reading »