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

Policing the Teen Brain

By Jeff Bostic, Lisa Thurau, Mona Potter, and Stacy Drury | February 2014 | Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

More than 100 years after the creation of the juvenile court, state juvenile justice policies still promote adult approaches, despite consistent neurobiological evidence that the adolescent brain processes, perceives, and responds differently than adult brains. Although frequently the first responders in youth cases, police officers rarely receive adequate training in effective communication and interaction strategies with youth. Strategies for Youth found that most police academies contacted devote less than 1% of training to interactions with adolescents,1 yet 20% to 40% of juvenile arrests are for “contempt of cop” offenses, such as questioning or “disrespecting” an officer.2 Incarceration of adolescents fails to decrease recidivism and compounds the negative impacts on the 60% to 70%3 of youth in correctional facilities who have significant untreated mental health problems.4 We found that police officer training in neurodevelopmentally sensitive techniques markedly decreased teen arrests and improved police–teen interactions in diverse American communities. Continue reading »

Should Teens be Held Criminally Responsible?

By Judith Edersheim, Gene Beresin, and Steve Schlozman | September 19, 2013 | PBS’s “Brains on Trial” Science Blog 

Parents of adolescents have long recognized that teenagers have serious difficulties controlling their behaviors, following rules, and avoiding risky situations. In recent years, neuroscience has been able to provide empirical support to this postulate by identifying neural patterns in adolescents that differ from those of adults. However, incorporation of this common and scientifically-supported knowledge to legal questions has been difficult. The courts have began to recognize that maturity is an important facet to consider when deliberating about individual responsibility as it relates to adolescent.

It is also important to acknowledge that maturity is but one aspect that can impact adolescent behaviors. Additionally, experts advocate consideration of family issues, substance abuse, trauma history, academic performance, and other individual and social factors in making determinations about a teenager’s degree of responsibility. Furthermore, as with adults, some of the most important interventions will be those that can offer preventative services and proper treatment of psychiatric problems.

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.

Kids at Risk for Violence: Warning Signs of Aggression

By Gene Beresin, Steve Schlozman, and Judy Edersheim | September 17, 2013 | PBS’s Brains On Trial “Science Blog”

Some kids will become violent as adolescents. Many have a very short fuse, and explode over the smallest thing. Others, like a ticking time bomb harbor pent up anger until something pops. And then there are kids who are the scariest – the ones who silently plan to harm others and don’t just fantasize, but really hurt others, verbally or physically.

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What are the warning signs? What can we do if we spot kids early and prevent violence?

If we look at teenagers who have committed violent acts there are thousands with histories of fights, stealing, being the brunt of physical or verbal abuse, and victims of or perpetrators of bullying. Many have had depression, learning disorders, especially language problems. Most have been scapegoated and marginalized. Some were impulsive and just blew a fuse, others planned their offenses.

What can we do about this dilemma?

While we cannot easily identify which kid will be a societal danger, we should take some traits seriously, and if identified, make every attempt toward remediation.

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.

The Adolescent Brain: Primed on Thrills and High on Life

By Gene Beresin and Mireya Nadal-Vicens | September 16, 2013 | PBS’s Brains On Trial “Science Blog”

Teenagers are convinced they are ready to take the reins – to decide and act fully, no longer wanting to be held back by overly cautious adults who don’t really ‘get it.’ Neurobiologically speaking, the adolescent brain is poised for impulsivity and thrill-seeking.

Photo credit: Alexandra McHale

In the documentary, “Brains on Trial with Alan Alda,” Jimmy Moran is on trial for attempted murder. Newly 18 years old, from a bad home, addicted to cocaine, questions of whether poor brain function affected his behavior the night he shot an innocent bystander remain constant. And being an adolescent, his brain was already primed for risky behavior.

Two separate but interconnected processes underlie teenage bravado. Firstly, the last wave of neurodevelopment, myelination, has yet to be completed. Myelination is the process of strengthening useful connections between neurons and omitting what is no longer needed.

By adolescence, most of the brain has been myelinated except for the frontal lobe, the center of “executive functioning” where planning, sequencing of activities and prioritizing long-range goals take place. Biologically, the long-range planning part of the brain is simply slower, less ‘hard-wired’ than the here-and-now information-processing parts of the brain.

Secondly, in part due to the slower inputs from the frontal lobe, thrills and rewards are just more thrilling and rewarding to teenagers. The reward center serves to motivate us by producing a small but powerful response to food, sex, and novel situations. Teenagers just get a whooping dose of this. In part due to the slower inputs from the frontal lobe, adolescents perceive short-term rewards as more rewarding than adults, and even small rewards are experienced as larger, better, more engrossing than they do to adults. Jokes are funnier, experiences are often, repeatedly ‘the best,’ everything is more urgent and more intense. Everything is worth doing because it feels so good, so right. The brakes, or the ability to contextualize certain pleasures and to appraise the relevant risks, are simply not hard-wired yet.

Three outside factors emphasize teenage impulsivity…

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.

Joshua Buckholtz Awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

CLBB Faculty Member Joshua Buckholtz is one of 126 scholars awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship this year, and one of five from Harvard. Established “to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise,” the award provides $50,000 to be applied however the recipients like: “Sloan Research Fellows,” according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “are free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry are of the most compelling interest to them.”

Fellowships are awarded in eight scientific fields—chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Applicants are nominated by fellow scientists and chosen through close cooperation with the scientific community.

According to the Harvard Gazette, Buckholtz will use the fellowship “to exploit new tools to discover brain circuit-level mechanisms governing impulsive decision-making, and to develop novel circuit-based treatments for impulsive symptoms in psychiatric and neurological disorders.”

“I’m honored and thrilled to be selected, and excited about the work that this award will allow me to pursue,” he told the Gazette. “The pathological inability to delay gratification — what we call impulsive decision-making — contributes to distress and impairment across a range of disorders, especially drug addiction and ADHD, but also schizophrenia and Parkinson’s.”

When he announced the award in 1941, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. said, “Too often we fail to recognize and pay tribute to the creative spirit. It is the spirit that creates our jobs… There has to be this pioneer. The individual who has the courage, the ambition to overcome the obstacles that always develop when one tries to do something worthwhile, especially when it is new and different.”