News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.


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

Memory, Trauma, and Asylum Law: A Role for Neuroscience?

CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis X. Shen and research assistant Aldis H. Petriceks discusses the role neuroscience can play in the outcomes of migrants seeking asylum at the border.

Francis X. Shen and Aldis H. Petriceks | Petrie-Flom Center | December 10th, 2019

Today hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers await their hearings. Multiple studies conducted in 2019 confirmed that the conditions of detainment are often deplorable. The federal government recently acknowledged a lack of adequate medical and mental health care at the Southern Border, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a 200-page report documenting the Human Cost of Inhumane Immigration Policies, highlighting the severe damage to child and adult mental health at the border. All the while, despite public outrage and government claims to the contrary, family separation has remained prevalent.

Recent investigations into border detention facilities have revealed children sleeping in “cold cells without proper clothing or adequate food;” verbal abuse and emotional neglect; cells overcrowded with sick and unwashed children; and the constant, amplifying anxiety of children in fear of losing their parents. Beyond the border, in detention centers across the country, facilities are similarly deplorable.

According to recent studies, separately-detained immigrant children often suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, and suicidal ideation. When these children are released, they are vulnerable to long-term separation anxiety, sleep disturbance, nightmares, and decreased academic capacity.

Common sense and compassion both suggest that these consequences are troubling and unethical. But legal advocates have found common sense and compassion in short supply.

Against this background, the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) is asking a novel and important question: can neuroscientific evidence play a role in improving the conditions of confinement—and the courtroom outcomes—of asylum seekers?

The Center for Law, Brain and Behavior works at the vanguard of applied neuroscience: making neuroscience actionable for the legal community in order to ensure just and positive outcomes for all those affected by the law. We believe that better decisions, aligned with science, will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.

We promote and enable the sound application of accurate neuroscience to critical areas of the legal process: criminal trials and sentencing, juvenile justice, elder protection, and immigration enforcement and asylum.

Our work in immigration justice began in 2019. As part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the CLBB and Petrie-Flom Center, we held a kickoff event—Trauma at the Border—featuring Dr. Charles Nelson, III, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Attorney Cindy Zapata, Clinical Instructor in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program at Harvard Law School, together in dialogue surrounding the integration of science and law. Since then, we have been speaking with legal practitioners and scientists about whether—and how—neuroscience could play a larger role in promoting justice in immigration law.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

First, we are confident neuroscience offers valuable insight into the neurological harms inflicted on asylum seekers, especially children. The harms are extensive, with studies consistently demonstrating changes in brain structure, function, and connectivity resulting from childhood trauma. As just one example, childhood maltreatment—including physical, verbal, and non-verbal abuse and neglect—is associated with substantial reductions in grey matter in the hippocampus, a region of the brain tightly involved in memory and emotional regulation, and particularly susceptible to stress-related hormones.

Concurrent with these structural changes are shifts in specific neurological functions. Combined with the structural changes, these functional alterations may help explain why maltreated children—like those separately detained at the border—are more likely to suffer from PTSD, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, personality disorders, and psychosis.

Second, the neuroscience of memory has important potential to help courts better understand that inconsistencies in narrative recall are not necessarily indicative of a lack of credibility in asylum seekers. Cognitive neuroscientists are beginning to uncover the underlying neurobiology of autobiographical recall among people with emotional disorders, showing how trauma can affect memory circuits.

Yet testimonial inconsistencies still play a very large role in negative credibility findings. This gap—between the neuroscientific and courtroom understandings of memory—is one more arena where the integration of neuroscience and law can provide fresh direction toward more just legal outcomes. Neuroscience may be powerful evidence if it allows judges and asylum officers to see individual trauma through a new, brain-based lens.

This is not an unfounded hope. In a series of landmark 8th Amendment cases restricting the use of the death penalty and life without parole for juvenile offenders, the United States Supreme Court cited that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” (RoperGrahamMiller). After ten years of careful interdisciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists and lawyers, today juvenile justice litigators routinely cite neuroscientific findings in their briefs and arguments.

Our work in 2020 will further explore how attorneys representing asylum seekers may similarly find successful ways to integrate brain science into their work.

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 »

A Revised Portrait of Psychopaths

The Harvard Gazette covers a recent study by CLBB Faculty Member Dr. Joshua Buckholtz that challenges the traditional view of psychopaths. The study found that psychopaths struggle to make accurate predictions about the consequences of their actions, challenging the previously-held notion that they simply are unable to feel empathy, remorse, or regret. About the significance of the findings, Dr. Buckholtz notes:

“There are two components to regret. There is retrospective regret, which is how we usually think about regret — the emotional experience after you learn you could have received a better outcome if you had made a different choice. But we also use signals from our environment to make predictions about which actions will or won’t result in regret. What differentiated psychopaths from other people was their inability to use those prospective regret signals, to use information about the choices they were given to anticipate how much regret they were going to experience, and adjust their decision-making accordingly.

“It’s almost like a blindness to future regret. When something happens, they feel regret, but what they can’t do is look forward and use information that would tell them they’re going to feel regret to guide their decision-making.”

On the relationship between the study’s novel findings about psychopathy and criminal behavior, he observes:

“Contrary to what you would expect based on these basic emotional-deficit models, their emotional responses to regret didn’t predict incarceration. We know psychopathy is one of the biggest predictors of criminal behavior, but what we found was that behavioral regret sensitivity moderated that, raising the suggestion that intact behavioral regret sensitivity could be a protective factor against incarceration in psychopathic individuals.

Finally, when commenting on the importance of the research, he notes:

“We actually know very little about how psychopaths make choices. There have been all sorts of research into their emotions and emotional experience, but we know next to nothing about how they integrate information that we extract from the world as a matter of course and use it to make decisions in daily lives. Getting better insight into why psychopaths make such terrible choices, I think, is going to be very important for the next generation of psychopathy research.”

Read the full article, “A Revised Portrait of Psychopaths”, published in the Harvard Gazette on February 2, 2017.