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.

Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Neural Development from Infancy through Early Childhood

By Galen Chin-Lun HungJill HahnBibi AlamiriStephen L. BukaJill M. GoldsteinNan LairdCharles A. NelsonJordan W. Smoller, and Stephen E. Gilman | International Journal of Epidemiology | December 16, 2015


Background: Early social experiences are believed to shape neurodevelopment, with potentially lifelong consequences. Yet minimal evidence exists regarding the role of the social environment on children’s neural functioning, a core domain of neurodevelopment.

Methods: We analysed data from 36 443 participants in the United States Collaborative Perinatal Project, a socioeconomically diverse pregnancy cohort conducted between 1959 and 1974. Study outcomes included: physician (neurologist or paediatrician)-rated neurological abnormality neonatally and thereafter at 4 months and 1 and 7 years; indicators of neurological hard signs and soft signs; and indicators of autonomic nervous system function.

Results: Children born to socioeconomically disadvantaged parents were more likely to exhibit neurological abnormalities at 4 months [odds ratio (OR) = 1.20; 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.06, 1.37], 1 year (OR = 1.35; CI = 1.17, 1.56), and 7 years (OR = 1.67; CI = 1.48, 1.89), and more likely to exhibit neurological hard signs (OR = 1.39; CI = 1.10, 1.76), soft signs (OR = 1.26; CI = 1.09, 1.45) and autonomic nervous system dysfunctions at 7 years. Pregnancy and delivery complications, themselves associated with socioeconomic disadvantage, did not account for the higher risks of neurological abnormalities among disadvantaged children.

Conclusions: Parental socioeconomic disadvantage was, independently from pregnancy and delivery complications, associated with abnormal child neural development during the first 7 years of life. These findings reinforce the importance of the early environment for neurodevelopment generally, and expand knowledge regarding the domains of neurodevelopment affected by environmental conditions. Further work is needed to determine the mechanisms linking socioeconomic disadvantage with children’s neural functioning, the timing of such mechanisms and their potential reversibility.

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Does Developmental Timing of Exposure to Child Maltreatment Predict Memory Performance in Adulthood? Results from a Large, Population-Based Sample

By Erin C. Dunn, Daniel S. Busso, Miriam R. Raffeld, Jordan W. Smoller, Charles A. Nelson, Alysa E. Doyle, and Gigi Luk | Child Abuse & Neglect | November 13, 2015


Although maltreatment is a known risk factor for multiple adverse outcomes across the lifespan, its effects on cognitive development, especially memory, are poorly understood. Using data from a large, nationally representative sample of young adults (Add Health), we examined the effects of physical and sexual abuse on working and short-term memory in adulthood. We examined the association between exposure to maltreatment as well as its timing of first onset after adjusting for covariates. Of our sample, 16.50% of respondents were exposed to physical abuse and 4.36% to sexual abuse by age 17. An analysis comparing unexposed respondents to those exposed to physical or sexual abuse did not yield any significant differences in adult memory performance. However, two developmental time periods emerged as important for shaping memory following exposure to sexual abuse, but in opposite ways. Relative to non-exposed respondents, those exposed to sexual abuse during early childhood (ages 3-5), had better number recall and those first exposed during adolescence (ages 14-17) had worse number recall. However, other variables, including socioeconomic status, played a larger role (than maltreatment) on working and short-term memory. We conclude that a simple examination of “exposed” versus “unexposed” respondents may obscure potentially important within-group differences that are revealed by examining the effects of age at onset to maltreatment.

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Genome-Wide Association Study Identifies SESTD1 as a Novel Risk Gene for Lithium-Responsive Bipolar Disorder

By J. Song, Sarah E. Bergen, Arianna Di Florio, R. Karlsson, Alexander Charney, Douglas M. Ruderfer, Eli A. Stahl, Members of the International Cohort Collection for Bipolar Disorder (ICCBD), Kimberly D. Chambert, Jennifer L. Moran, Katherine Gordon-Smith, Liz Forty, Elaine K. Green, Ian Jones, Lisa Jones, E. M. Scolnick, Pamela Sklar, Jordan W. Smoller, P. Lichtenstein, Christina Hultman, Nick Craddock, and Mikael Landén | Molecular Psychiatry | October 27, 2015


Lithium is the mainstay prophylactic treatment for bipolar disorder (BD), but treatment response varies considerably across individuals. Patients who respond well to lithium treatment might represent a relatively homogeneous subtype of this genetically and phenotypically diverse disorder. Here, we performed genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to identify (i) specific genetic variations influencing lithium response and (ii) genetic variants associated with risk for lithium-responsive BD. Patients with BD and controls were recruited from Sweden and the United Kingdom. GWAS were performed on 2698 patients with subjectively defined (self-reported) lithium response and 1176 patients with objectively defined (clinically documented) lithium response. We next conducted GWAS comparing lithium responders with healthy controls (1639 subjective responders and 8899 controls; 323 objective responders and 6684 controls). Meta-analyses of Swedish and UK results revealed no significant associations with lithium response within the bipolar subjects. However, when comparing lithium-responsive patients with controls, two imputed markers attained genome-wide significant associations, among which one was validated in confirmatory genotyping (rs116323614, P=2.74 × 10−8). It is an intronic single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) on chromosome 2q31.2 in the gene SEC14 and spectrin domains 1 (SESTD1), which encodes a protein involved in regulation of phospholipids. Phospholipids have been strongly implicated as lithium treatment targets. Furthermore, we estimated the proportion of variance for lithium-responsive BD explained by common variants (‘SNP heritability’) as 0.25 and 0.29 using two definitions of lithium response. Our results revealed a genetic variant in SESTD1 associated with risk for lithium-responsive BD, suggesting that the understanding of BD etiology could be furthered by focusing on this subtype of BD.

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Nicotine Dependence and Psychosis in Bipolar Disorder and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Type

By Elena Estrada, Sarah M. Hartz, Jeffrey Tran, Donald M. Hilty, Pamela Sklar, Jordan W. Smoller, Carlos N. Pato, Michele T. Pato, and Genomic Psychiatry Cohort Consortium | American Journal of Medical Genetics | October 15, 2015


Patients with Bipolar disorder smoke more than the general population. Smoking negatively impacts mortality and clinical course in Bipolar disorder patients. Prior studies have shown contradictory results regarding the impact of psychosis on smoking behavior in Bipolar disorder. We analyzed a large sample of Bipolar disorder and Schizoaffective disorder, Bipolar Type patients and predicted those with a history of psychosis would be more likely to be nicotine dependent. Data from subjects and controls were collected from the Genomic Psychiatry Cohort (GPC). Subjects were diagnosed with Bipolar disorder without psychosis (N = 610), Bipolar disorder with psychosis (N = 1544). Participants were classified with or without nicotine dependence. Diagnostic groups were compared to controls (N = 10065) using logistic regression. Among smokers (N = 6157), those with Bipolar disorder had an increased risk of nicotine dependence (OR = 2.5; P < 0.0001). Patients with Bipolar disorder with psychosis were more likely to be dependent than Bipolar disorder patients without psychosis (OR = 1.3; P = 0.03). Schizoaffective disorder, Bipolar Type patients had more risk of nicotine dependence when compared to Bipolar disorder patients with or without psychosis (OR = 1.2; P = 0.02). Bipolar disorder patients experiencing more severity of psychosis have more risk of nicotine dependence.

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Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces Are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes

By Laura Germine, Richard Russell, P. Matthew Bronstad, Gabriëlla A.M. Blokland, Jordan W. Smoller, Holum Kwok, Samuel E. Anthony, Ken Nakayama, Gillian Rhodes, and Jeremy B. Wilmer | Current Biology | October 1, 2015


Although certain characteristics of human faces are broadly considered more attractive (e.g., symmetry, averageness), people also routinely disagree with each other on the relative attractiveness of faces. That is, to some significant degree, beauty is in the “eye of the beholder.” Here, we investigate the origins of these individual differences in face preferences using a twin design, allowing us to estimate the relative contributions of genetic and environmental variation to individual face attractiveness judgments or face preferences. We first show that individual face preferences (IP) can be reliably measured and are readily dissociable from other types of attractiveness judgments (e.g., judgments of scenes, objects). Next, we show that individual face preferences result primarily from environments that are unique to each individual. This is in striking contrast to individual differences in face identity recognition, which result primarily from variations in genes [1]. We thus complete an etiological double dissociation between two core domains of social perception (judgments of identity versus attractiveness) within the same visual stimulus (the face). At the same time, we provide an example, rare in behavioral genetics, of a reliably and objectively measured behavioral characteristic where variations are shaped mostly by the environment. The large impact of experience on individual face preferences provides a novel window into the evolution and architecture of the social brain, while lending new empirical support to the long-standing claim that environments shape individual notions of what is attractive.

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