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.

CLBB in the Classroom in Spring 2020

CLBB affiliated faculty are offering classes in the intersections of neuroscience, law and ethics this semester. Read below for more information on these exciting opportunities to learn from the country’s leading thinkers in law and neuroscience.

Law and Neuroscience at Harvard Law School

The flagship seminar is Law and Neuroscience, open to Harvard Law School students. Law and Neuroscience is taught by Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.), Senior Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and CLBB Managing Director. The seminar features a world-class roster of CLBB affiliated faculty and guest scientists to help explore core topics in law and neuroscience. CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judy Edersheim, JD, MD and CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD, will be in class each session to provide medical and legal perspectives.

Course Type: Harvard Law School Seminar (2 credits)
Meeting Time: Thursdays, 5:15 – 7:15 pm
Instructor: Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.)

Description: What’s going on inside the minds of criminal defendants? And what about the judges, jurors, and attorneys who adjudicate them? Are addicts responsible? Can violent offenders be rehabilitated? Do we have free will? How can neuroscience inform criminal sentencing? This seminar on law and neuroscience explores questions such as these through the innovative lens of modern neuroscience. The seminar features guest lectures by world-leading experts in neuroscience, and explores how criminal law’s ancient assumptions about human decision-making, emotions, and memory are increasingly being challenged by modern neuroscience through novel evidence and innovative legal arguments. Students will explore the legal implications of the neuroscience of hate, love, memory, lying, trauma, stress, violence, addiction, false confessions, adolescence, juvenile justice, and much more. We will look critically at efforts to use neuroimaging in court, and this will necessarily lead us to consider the relationship between law and science, more generally, and neuroscience in particular. The seminar will develop legal writing skills, as well as prepare students for engagement with expert testimony, criminal law and procedure, and complex litigation involving science and law.

Confirmed guest speakers include: Dr. Judith Edersheim, JD, MD, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital; Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD, co-author of the first casebook on Law and Neuroscience; Dr. Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Attorney Marsha Levick, JD, Chief Legal Officer and Co-Founder, Juvenile Law Center; Dr. Leah Somerville, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University;  Dr. Roger Weiss, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University; Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Dr. Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD, MGH Trustees Endowed Chair in Psychiatric Neuroscience; and Adam Haar Horowitz, MIT Department of Cognitive Science, MIT Media Lab.

Enrollment in this seminar is available for Harvard Law School students. Students interested should email Judge Gertner.

Neuroethics at Harvard Medical School

For students in the Masters of Bioethics program and for medical students at Harvard Medical School, directed by CLBB Director of Law & Ethics Dr. Rebecca Weintraub Brendel, MD, JD, there is an option to enroll in Neuroethics, co-taught by Dr. Joe Giacino, PhD and CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD.

Course Type: Masters in Bioethics Seminar (2 credits)
Meeting Time: Thursdays, 2:00 – 3:45 pm Eastern Instructors: Dr. Joe Giacino and Dr. Francis Shen

Description: This seminar-style course undertakes a survey of the ethical issues related to current and future neurotechnologies. These include such topics as consciousness, selfhood, and free will; human-computer interaction (including artificial intelligence and deep learning); brain-computer interfaces; the use of neuroscience in the courts; and cognitive enhancement. The course covers many topics related to medical care for patients with neurological disorders, including disorders of consciousness, deciding for others, preclinical imaging and genetic testing for patients with neurological disorders, and clinical research on neural engineering devices.
Confirmed guest speakers include Dr. Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD on brain-machine interface, Dr. Robert Troug, MD on brain death, and Dr. Justin Baker, MD, PhD and Dr. Benjamin Silverman, MD on deep phenotyping.

Masters in Bioethics students and Harvard Medical School students interested in this course should email Dr. Shen

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.

Trauma at the Border: Can Neuroscience Inform Legal Advocacy?

CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis X. Shen discusses the role neuroscience can play in the outcomes of migrants seeking asylum at the border.

Francis X. Shen | Petrie-Flom Center | February 8th, 2019

This week the House Judiciary Committee begins its formal inquiries into the Trump Administration’s separation of children from their families as part of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018.

The policy of family separation was curtailed after public outcry, but the trauma remains. Experts in developmental neuroscience have explained that the trauma of separation has likely produced long-term toxic effects on the brains of these young people.

Moreover, the trauma of separation is only one of many stressors affecting the lives of those seeking refuge and asylum. Children who witness intense violence and flee war-ravaged lands are at greater risk of psychological harm. Children at the U.S. border encounter even more trauma when they enter an immigration system where the Supreme Court has recently held that they can be detained indefinitely.

Legal advocates across the world, including law clinics like the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, are using the law to address these challenging circumstances.

In a timely panel on Monday, March 4, “Trauma at the Border,” we will explore whether and how neuroscience has a role to play in legal advocacy. Can neuroscience help frame the policy debate? In individual cases, can brain evidence be used to improve client outcomes? How can advocates most effectively and sensitively work with clients who are experiencing such significant ongoing trauma?

Addressing these and related questions will be Harvard professor Dr. Charles Nelson, III, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and Director of Research, Developmental Medicine Center, Boston Children’s Hospital; Cindy Zapata, JD, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Law School; and me, Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD, Executive Director, Harvard Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital and Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Petrie-Flom Center in Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School.

The presentations and discussions will be both scientifically rich and passionately personal. Dr. Nelson’s research on the effects of trauma on the young child’s brain has been featured in conversations about immigration policy, and Attorney Zapata led Harvard Law School students on service trip to Karnes Detention Center, where they worked with children and fathers who had been forcibly separated under the Trump administration policy.

As Executive Director of the MGH Center for Law Brain and Behavior (CLBB), which partners with the Petrie-Flom Center to produce the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, I am excited because this event reflects the CLBB’s mission to bring about systemic legal reform through innovative uses of neuroscience.

We believe that better decisions aligned with science will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.

Neuroscientists have been vocal about the toxic effects of trauma on the young brain, and legal advocates have been vigorous in their efforts to pursue justice for immigrant families. Integrating neuroscience in a responsible and strategic manner has the potential to improve legal doctrine and practice. But to realize that potential, we need more direct dialogue between neuroscience and law. This panel offers both scientists and lawyers an opportunity to kick-start that dialogue.

I hope our upcoming events marks the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, and I hope you will join us.

WATCH: Trauma at the Border


March 4, 2019 at Harvard Law School

At the center of contemporary political debate are the record numbers of migrant families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border. As these parents and children flee the trauma of violence in their native countries, they are now experiencing the trauma of navigating an increasingly hostile immigration system. What can neuroscience tell us about the effects of these traumatic experiences on the brains of the children and adults? And how might the neuroscience of trauma and brain development affect legal cases? Can advances in mobile neuroimaging provide practitioners with real-time brain evidence of trauma? Does neuroscience have a larger role to play in shaping our nation’s immigration policies? This panel session brought together scientists and lawyers to start a dialogue on neuroscience, trauma, and justice.


VIDEO: Welcome and Introduction, Francis X. Shen
VIDEO: Charles Nelson III, “The Effects of Early Life Adversity on Development”
VIDEO: Cindy Zapata on the impact of refugees’ trauma on their ability to navigate the legal system
VIDEO: Francis Shen, Concluding Remarks
VIDEO: Audience Q & A


  • Charles Nelson, III, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and Director of Research, Developmental Medicine Center, Boston Children’s Hospital
  • Cindy Zapata, JD, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Law School; Leader of 2018 HLS student trip to provide legal services to immigrant families separated in the Karnes Detention Center in Texas
  • Moderator: Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD, Executive Director, Harvard Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital and Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Petrie-Flom Center in Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor of Law and McKnight Land-Grant Professor, University of Minnesota Law School

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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.