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

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.

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 »

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.

19-Year-Olds Don’t Belong in Adult Prisons

By Nancy Gertner | The Boston Globe | June 20, 2017

Governor Baker introduced a criminal justice bill in February to great fanfare. Designed to give prisoners incarcerated on mandatory minimum sentences access to good-time credit to hasten their release and to provide reentry programming, it received wide bipartisan support — as it should. The justification was clear. “Reducing recidivism,” Baker said, was the bill’s focus. The people of Massachusetts benefit “when more individuals exit the system as law abiding and productive members of the society.”

True enough. Except for those sentenced to life imprisonment, all prisoners get out of jail, and if their needs have not been addressed inside prison, not much will change when they get outside. The bill the governor proposed should help. But measures that would do much much more to address recidivism are pending before the Legislature. Representatives Evandro Carvalho and Kay Khan and Senators Cynthia Creem and Karen Spilka propose to gradually raise the age at which juveniles will be subject to juvenile court jurisdiction to include 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds.

Keeping 18-to-20-year-olds in the juvenile system, where they must attend school and participate in rehabilitative programming, where they are given supervision and intensive services, is the best bet to reduce recidivism. The governor should be championing these bills, as law enforcement representatives already have. Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins and former sheriff Frank Cousins are publicly supporting the bill, because sheriffs know better than anyone what damaging environments adult facilities can be for young people. Our current approach to this age group is a failure, with reoffending being more common than rehabilitation. It is time to try something new, informed by science and aimed at more than incremental change. Continue reading »