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

Do Not Rely on Facial Expressions for How People Are Feeling

The Economist reported on a recently published study by CLBB Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, which complicated our understanding of facial expression and emotions. Dr. Lisa Feldman was interviewed for the article and her study was featured prominently:

“As Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the authors of the study, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, told the AAAS meeting in Seattle, ‘We surprised ourselve’. Dr Feldman Barrett is a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and along with her colleagues she found that, on average, adults in urban cultures scowled when they were angry 30% of the time. Which meant that some 70% of the time they did not scowl when angry. Instead, they did something else with their faces. People also scowled when they were not angry. ‘They scowl when they’re concentrating, they scowl when someone tells them a bad joke, they scowl when they have gas, they scowl for lots of reasons,’ says Dr Feldman Barrett.

A scowl, the researchers concluded, is certainly one expression of anger. But it is not the only way people express that emotion. The ambiguous nature of facial expressions was not restricted to anger, but seemed valid for all six of the emotional categories that they examined: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.”

Additionally, the article also highlighted the significant of this research:

“All this raises questions about the efforts of information-technology companies to develop artificial-intelligence algorithms which can recognise facial expressions and work out a person’s underlying emotional state. Microsoft, for example, claims its “Emotion api” is able to detect what people are feeling by examining video footage of them. Another of the study’s authors, however, expressed scepticism. Aleix Martinez, a computer engineer at Ohio State University, said that companies attempting to extract emotions from images of faces have failed to understand the importance of context.”

Read the full article, “Do not rely on facial expressions for how people are feeling”, published by The Economist on February 20, 2020.

Detecting Dementia: Technology, Aging Brains, and the Law

April 1, 2020 12:00 PM at Harvard Law School

Description

Advances in neuroimaging, genetics, and mobile health apps are creating unprecedented opportunities to detect subtle brain changes that may predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. But how much trust should we have in these new technologies, who will have access to them, and how should the law respond when litigants proffer novel evidence of their brain states? This panel will explore technological innovations in dementia detection, and their ethical, social, and legal implications.

Panelists

  • Jonathan Jackson, PhD, is the founding director of the Community Access, Recruitment, and Engagement (CARE) Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, which investigates the impact of diversity and inclusion on the quality of human subjects research and leverages deep community entrenchment to build trust and overcome barriers to clinical trial participation. His research focuses on midlife and late-life health disparities in clinical settings that affect Black populations. Dr. Jackson also works as a cognitive neuroscientist, investigating the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), particularly in the absence of overt memory problems. He serves on Massachusetts General Hospital’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) and MGH’s Cancer Center Equity Program, specializing in identifying and overcoming barriers to clinical research for people and communities of color. He has become a well-known MGH representative to communities of color and dozens of affiliated organizations, particularly regarding clinical research. Dr. Jackson serves on the leadership team of several organizations focused on community health, as well as local, statewide, and national advisory groups for research recruitment, Alzheimer’s disease, and community engagement
  • Bruce H. Price, MD, is Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior. Dr. Price graduated from Harvard University cum laude, and attended the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. In 1994, he was appointed Chief of the Department of Neurology at McLean Hospital. He is an Associate in Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. In 1996, he co-founded the Neuropsychology Fellowship Training Program at McLean Hospital. In 1999, he founded the Behavioral Neurology/Neuropsychiatry Fellowship Training Program at McLean Hospital. He is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Co-Founder and Associate Director of the Fronto-Temporal Dementia Fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2006, the Bruce H. Price, M.D. Award for Clinical and Academic Excellence in Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Neurology was established in his honor. He supervises approximately 20 psychiatry, neuropsychology, and neurology residents and fellows per year. An internationally recognized leader in the integration of neurology, psychiatry, neurosurgery, and neuropsychology, his research interests include the cognitive and behavioral consequences of neurologic and psychiatric diseases, brain dysfunction in violent and criminal behavior, frontal lobe functions including insight, judgment, empathy, self-awareness, social adaptation, and decision-making, memory disorders, and dementias, complex decision-making, fraud, and undue influence. His fascination with the intersections between medicine, law, and ethics is longstanding.
  • Ipsit Vahia, MD, is a geriatric psychiatrist, clinician, and researcher. He is medical director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Outpatient Services at McLean Hospital and the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry. His research focuses on the use of technology and informatics in the assessment and management of older adults and currently, he oversees a clinical and research program on aging, behavior, and technology. He has published extensively in major international journals and textbooks. Dr. Vahia serves on the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Council on Geriatric Psychiatry and the Geriatric Psychiatry Committee of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He has served on the board of directors of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP) and on the editorial boards of five journals including his current role as social media editor of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. He is a recipient of several prestigious awards including the 2016 AAGP Barry Lebowitz Award and the 2014 APA Hartford Jeste Award.

Part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

WATCH: The Next Frontier of Neuroscience and Juvenile Justice

February 26, 2020 12:00 PM at Harvard Law School

Description

In the fifteen years since the United States Supreme Court referred to developmental science in ruling the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, state and federal courts have seen a wave of neuroscience-informed juvenile justice litigation. Advocates have come to see neuroscience as a powerful tool, and the Supreme Court has cited to neuroscience research in subsequent cases further restricting harsh punishments for juveniles in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama.

But the full potential of neuroscience in juvenile justice has yet to be reached. Advances in neuroscientific understanding of the developing brain, including development in emerging adulthood from ages 18 to 25, are only beginning to enter legal cases. Moreover, advocates are recognizing that to make a more direct and profound impact, group-averaged neuroscience evidence must be complemented by individualized clinical assessments. This panel will discuss scientific and legal developments, and the new innovations they suggest at the intersection of neuroscience and juvenile justice.

VIDEO: The Next Frontier of Neuroscience and Juvenile Justice

Panelists

  • Robert Kinscherff, Faculty, Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology and Associate Vice President for Community Engagement, William James College; Associate Managing Director, Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer and co-founder of Juvenile Law Center
  • Leah SomervilleProfessor of Psychology and Director of Graduate Studies in Psychology, Harvard University and faculty, Center for Brain Science

Part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

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.