News and Commentary Archive

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


The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

Covid-19 Fraud Threatens Older Adults

CLBB student research interns Julia Hall and Justin Wong on COVID-19 Fraud Threatens Older Adults in Medium

Covid-19 scams target older adults in order to gain access to their personal information

Along the rapid spread of COVID-19, related opportunistic scams have quickly proliferated, and older adults are particularly susceptible to them. Both online and in person, fraudsters exploit older adults to obtain their personal and financial information. They have offered governmental aid and medical supplies, such as face masks, home test kits and vaccinations that do not yet exist, exploiting the sudden and anxious surges in demand. They have also sought out seniors in grocery stores to deliver their groceries, requested charity donations, and gone door-to-door impersonating health officers offering COVID-19 testing.

Why are these scams particularly dangerous to older adults? In general, people over 65, are more likely to be targeted by fraudsters and to lose money to financial fraud than someone in their 40s. Seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion annually to financial exploitation. Fraudsters target the elderly because they are considered to be a naïve segment of the population and may be lonely, willing to listen, and more trusting than younger individuals.

Neuroscience helps shed light on why older adults are particularly vulnerable right now. Cognitive decline associated with aging may predispose older adults to being victims of fraud. As people age, brain size and structure, vasculature, and cognition change, causing declines inconceptual reasoning, mental flexibility, spatial reasoning, emotion regulation, memory, and processing speed. And the situation is worsened for those who experience pathological aging — Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is shown to correlate with low scam awareness and impaired financial capacity.

The onset of COVID-19 has increased both the number of scams and older adults’ susceptibility. During times of economic uncertainty and volatility, older adults are specifically targeted because they are likely to have high savings, good credit, and are less likely to report fraudulent behavior. Against this heightened threat of fraud, older adults are now socially isolated due to necessary social distancing, which decreases access to helpful resources and increases their vulnerability to scams. In addition, as a result of cognitive breakdowns to emotional triggers and declines in conceptual reasoning, older adults are left exposed by the extreme fear and uncertainty elicited by the pandemic.

The greater risk of COVID-19 to older adults may complicate late-life financial decisions. In general, 90% of perpetrators of elder fraud are known by the victim, with the majority being family members. Elder abuse has risen dramatically since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Recent reports of coronavirus-related brain ailments make this situation particularly tricky due to greater potential for opportunists to coerce older adults into making financial decisions in someone else’s best interest.

In response to the specific challenges posed by COVID-19, it is promising that government agencies have prioritized older adults by allocating federal disaster funding to provide meals, well-being checks, chores and delivery services. Additionally, local communities, such as Immediate Neighbors, Friends in the Neighborhood, or local councils and organizations offer older adults a reliable avenue for seeking help. U.S. Senators have even introduced a bill to protect older adults from scams directly related to COVID-19.

Sadly, neither elder fraud nor viral-related fraud is new, and there is an urgent need for more awareness and new solutions. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, regulators reported on an uptick in scams related to Ebola and recommended some general guidelines and instructions to avoid them, including the conventional advice of vigilance when handling money and personal information. The same is being done today, but it is not enough to prevent massive monetary losses, especially because non-profit organizations and senior centers across the US are also operating at lower capacity or closed to shield older adults from the virus.

In the midst of the looming risk, our work at the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior has shown us that the younger generation has the capacity to help. Given that older adults are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 related health complications and susceptible to fraud, we must do everything we can to protect our loved ones. Keeping vigilant with our older loved ones by watching out for changes in personality and daily functioning, checking in, and being wary of financial changes can reduce incidence of elder fraud.

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.