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

CLBB Provides Neuroscience Expertise for Supreme Court Amicus Brief

JULY 2, 2020 – In six days, Billy Joe Wardlow is scheduled to be executed for a crime he committed at age 18. Wardlow’s defense team is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. CLBB’s neuroscience faculty provided the most up to date adolescent and emerging adult neuroscience data to supplement an amicus brief in this case, and CLBB was honored to be a signatory to the amicus brief as a whole. See below for details of this compelling case, and a description of the relevant neuroscience.


Should Billy Joe Wardlow be Executed for a Crime Committed When He Was Eighteen? Lincoln Caplan | The New Yorker | June 30, 2020

Background: Billy Joe Wardlow “was 18 years, 6 months, and 19 days old on June 14, 1993, the morning he and his girlfriend, Tonya Fulfer, set out to steal Carl Cole’s Chevy Silverado. In their minds the theft would be the first step toward a new life, one far from the parents who had hurt them and the poverty they’d known in rural Northeast Texas. The idea was to drive the pickup to Montana, change their identities, and begin life anew. The plan’s magical thinking revealed itself as Wardlow stood on Cole’s front porch at dawn. Wardlow asked to borrow a phone. Cole handed one through the door. As Wardlow pretended to make a call, Cole tried to shut the door. Wardlow brought out the .45 he’d stolen from his mother hours before. To Wardlow’s surprise, the 82-year-old Cole charged him, grabbed his arm, and began to push the much-larger Wardlow backwards off the porch. As Cole’s fingers grabbed for control of the gun Wardlow shot. Cole fell dead. Wardlow and Fulfer were arrested two days later, having made it as far as South Dakota.” (source: Austin Chronicle)   

Highlight from The New Yorker essay: “With Wardlow’s execution scheduled for July 8th, the Supreme Court must rule before then on his request for a stay, perhaps this week. He wrote … in May: “I want to cause no more harm. I want to erase the pain I’ve inflicted on others. I want to be someone those I respect would be proud of. I want to be useful to those I love. I want to be someone others look up to and respect . . .I want to wipe away the taint of my past.'”


Amicus Brief to the U.S. Supreme Court
An amicus brief was submitted to the Supreme Court on behalf of professional organizations, practitioners, and academics in the fields of neuroscience, neuropsychology, and other related fields. Our neuroscience faculty at CLBB provided the most up-to-date adolescent and emerging adult neuroscience data to supplement the amicus brief.   Neuroscience in Action: “In light of what science has now shown about the developing brain, there is a broad consensus in the neuropsychological community that it is impossible to determine whether an 18-year-old-even one that has committed an act of deadly violence-is likely to commit acts of violence as a mature adult.     …in early adolescence, specific brain regions, notably the ventral striatum within the basal ganglia, mature in ways that promote reward- and sensation seeking, leading to riskier behavior. Recent, seminal neuroimaging studies show that a heightened sensitivity to rewards dominates adolescent decision-making. . . . 
Research also shows that development of the amygdala between early adolescence and adulthood elevates the brain’s sensitivity to emotional triggers. In fMRI studies in which subjects were shown images of human faces in expressions of fear, researchers found that adolescents, relative to adults, exhibited a general pattern of “heightened amygdala activity and slower behavioral responses to fearful faces.” That finding suggests “increasing emotion regulation capacity from adolescence to adulthood” and “continued functional change from young childhood through early adulthood.” . . .  In sum, new neuroimaging studies reveal that the prefrontal cortex-an area of the brain associated with reasoning and executive function- remains developmentally immature and underregulated until the mid20s, while the brain’s reward centers are relatively overexpressed, making emerging adults “more vulnerable to impulsivity,” less capable of emotional reasoning, and more likely to make “errors in self-regulation.”

Why Are Young People So Bad at Coronavirus Social distancing? Blame Their Brains.

CLBB Co-Founder and Co-Director Dr. Judith Edersheim on Why Are Young People So Bad at Coronavirus Social distancing? Blame Their Brains. in USA Today.

When the world began to shelter in place, the news was filled with accounts of groups of teenagers hanging out on the beach and being scolded for their selfishness. Adults told them to grow up and use good judgment and stop being reckless.

But these lectures were utterly ineffective. Even after one spring breaker’s infamous declaration that he wasn’t going to let COVID-19 stop him from partying, and the internet backlash that followed, college students were still going to parties and flouting their recklessness on Twitter with the hashtag #boomerremover

Now that many universities are considering postponing a return to campus until 2021, this problem has returned to the front burner. Why can’t these young adults simply follow the rules like everyone else? As experts in neuroscience and the law, my colleagues and I urge you not to judge these youths too harshly. Their brains are very much to blame.  Keep reading …

 

 

The Forgotten: Juveniles In Detention During COVID-19

CLBB Student Research Assistants Fenella McLuskie, Sina Sadeghzadeh, and Oliver Q. Sussman on The Forgotten: Juveniles In Detention During COVID-19 in The Harvard Crimson. Fenella McLuskie is a first-year student at Harvard Law School. Sina Sadeghzadeh ’21 is a Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House. Oliver Q. Sussman ’21 is a Neuroscience concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

With more than two million people affected worldwide, the novel coronavirus is exposing social inequities. In a study of COVID-19 and youth, about 90 percent of infected children developed mild to moderate symptoms while only 0.6 percent suffered more severe complications. Yet true to the theme of exacerbated inequality, some populations of youth are at a higher risk than this overall average would suggest.

Compared to other children, children in the juvenile justice system are disproportionately more likely to have compromised immunity, asthma, and other underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk for developing acute coronavirus complications. While there has been much attention paid to different vulnerable populations in our society, juvenile detainees, as usual, are often left out of the conversation. Keep reading …

 

Compassionate Release Now for Prisoners Vulnerable to the Coronavirus

CLBB Advisory Board Member Attorney John Reinstein and CLBB Managing Director Judge (Ret.) Nancy Gertner published this Op-Ed in the Boston Globe on March 23, 2020:

Prisons are Petri dishes for disease in the best of times, but they could become incubators for COVID-19 now. Prisoners sleep, eat, and shower in enclosed quarters with limited ventilation. Social distancing is impossible. Prison populations also have greater rates of serious health problems than the general population. Many are elderly, and have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer, conditions that, if they become infected with COVID-19, make them more likely to require intensive care and especially vulnerable to dying of the disease.

Click to keep reading at The Boston Globe

 

 

Protecting Older Adults from Financial Scams Amidst COVID-19

COVID-19 is introducing unparalleled challenges for older adults. In addition to being especially vulnerable to severe complications from the novel coronavirus, savings of older adults are now being targeted by well-organized predators with the aid of computer access to potential victims. 

Why are older adults being targeted, and what can we do to protect them? CLBB’s Co-Founder and Co-Director, Dr. Bruce Price offers expert advice on elder justice during this pandemic.

As brains age, our decision-making circuitry changes too. As detailed in CLBB’s 2018 conference, “Our Aging Brains: What is Dementia? Definitions, Diagnosis, and Treatment,” experts have identified four general trajectories of aging. The fortunate 10–20% experience “Super Aging,” in which individuals have little, if any, cognitive decline. More elders experience “Normal Cognitive Aging,” which consists of some degree of age-related cognitive decline, but generally does not significantly impact daily life. Other elderly people experience “Mild Cognitive Impairment,” in which there is accelerated cognitive decline without major impairments of daily functioning. Finally, 30-50% experience Pathologic Aging, known as “Dementia,” where individuals exhibit accelerated cognitive decline with major impairment of daily functioning.  Understanding the various paths of aging helps us recognize and understand differences we see in our loved ones as they grow older.

Cognitive impairments decrease a person’s capacity to make decisions. As a result, opportunists can exploit vulnerabilities in people with cognitive deficits, in particular those who are lonely, isolated from family during quarantine, and lacking access to online and in-person support resources. COVID-19 can also cause confusion, the inability to sustain a coherent stream of thought. 

Aging brains respond differently to salient emotional stimuli, and older adults may be especially vulnerable to scams that trigger emotions. COVID-19 elicits fear particularly amongst older populations who are at greater risk. Intense emotions surrounding the pandemic on top of cognitive decline, isolation and loneliness make the current situation very risky. 

When quarantined, older adults without Internet access will likely connect to the outside world through a family member or caretaker. Unfortunately, much of the fraudulent behavior against older adults is the result of undue influence from these trusted individuals. Given the economic downturn, it is not hard to imagine desperate relatives or caretakers tempted to prey upon an elder’s savings.

It is also easy to overlook cognitive decline to convince oneself and others that everything is fine. But we need to be vigilant. Family members, legal authorities and health care providers may erroneously conclude that complex judgement and decision-making remain intact when, in fact, they do not. 

In sum, we should remain vigilant, but calm. Rather than becoming overly anxious about someone taking advantage of a loved one, stay aware and be on the lookout for these three signs of concern.

First, is the individual misspending cash or investments? Are they spending in ways that you think they would not normally spend, if they were cognitively intact? If so, it may be a warning sign and further investigation  is warranted.

Second, are there signs of apathy? Apathy is one of the most common early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, evident in 70-80% of people. Apathy includes diminished interest, diminished motivation and persistence, diminished concern, withdrawal, and disengagement. These changes in cognition greatly effect one’s ability to avoid financial fraud and be cognizant of undue influence. 

Third, if living alone, are normal daily tasks being completed? Do they complete normal tasks, such as food shopping, paying bills, having consistent meals, and attending their doctor’s appointments? Forgetting important newly learned information may be a sign that your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, which leaves them more vulnerable to scams. Additionally, an early sign of cognitive problems can be more frequent car accidents, specifically fender-benders, due to a decline in cognitive processing.

Amidst the chaos of COVID-19, paying attention to major warning signs and routinely checking in with our older loved ones is a good way to keep them safe and to maintain your own peace of mind.