+ To the Justice System: This Is a Brain on Adolescence

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Silvia Bunge, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, is part of the new Law and Neuroscience Project, a MacArthur Foundation group of lawyers and neurobiologists working to incorporate neurology data into the legal system.

She wants to use what she knows about the teenage brain to help society deal with young risk-takers.  Bunge feels that current legal attitudes toward teen criminals needs revamping.

“Do you put someone away for life who lost his temper at 13, or do you acknowledge that his prefrontal cortex has matured since then?,” she asks.  “The law is slow to change, but it will, over time, incorporate scientific evidence.”

In a web article from UC Berkely by Rachel Tompa, Robert Knight, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley who is working with Bunge on the project, says “This is a very fundamental issue with huge social implications.”

The Law and Neuroscience Project is headquartered at UC Santa Barbara and includes scientists and legal experts from more than two dozen universities in the United States and Canada.  Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the honorary chair of the group, and psychology professor Michael Gazzaniga of UC Santa Barbara is the co-director.

The Brain’s Decision-maker

Many of our difficult decisions spring straight from the prefrontal cortex.  We don’t need to tap it when we drive our regular route to work; but we do when a child darts in front of the car.  It switches on as we decide how to react.

Adults are more capable than children of activating a “control” network in the brain which involves the prefrontal cortex.  They are able to better resist impulses and ignore distractions.  Brain activation is determined by examining the blood flow to the brain in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. 

Brain scan and behavioral studies have told us much about the prefrontal cortex.  People who have suffered injuries in parts of the prefrontal cortex have problems making decisions; they  take more risks than do healthy adults.  We need this part of the brain when we learn complicated rules that must be applied in different situations. 

Says Bunge, a person with a damaged prefrontal cortex may know to answer a ringing phone, but may not understand that it’s inappropriate to pick up a ringing phone in someone welse’s house.  

Surprisingly, patients with certain kinds of prefrontal cortex damage know right from wrong without being able to act on that knowledge.  “The parts of the brain that are important for storing rules are not the same as those that are important for using them,” says Bunge.  The prefrontal cortex is also involved in holding our impulses in check.

“If you want to fly off the handle and yell at your boss, your prefrontal cortex comes online to remind you of the consequences,” she says.

These abilities develop as we grow.  Small children aren’t able to refrain from yelling when they feel angry; at some point they learn to hold their emotions appropriately in check.

Bunge’s group is currently testing a training program based on brain research to help children who are behind in school to catch up.  Her preliminary research with elementary school children indicates that training aimed at the prefrontal cortex works.  Children who played a certain game every day after school for six weeks improved their scores on reasoning tests.

“We’re not only training their ability to tackle novel problems, but to control their impulses and ignore irrelevant information as well.”  She hopes this research will eventually translate into a training program that could be used for rehabilitation in juvenile detention centers.

Bunge and Knight are particularly interested in the possibility of intervention for children from low socio-economic backgrounds, who are more likely than the average teenager to commit crimes and may have less adult guidance and education.  They want to help these kids learn to make better decisions early — before they get in trouble with the law.

“We want to understand not just the influences that affect criminal responsibility,” says Knight, but we want to get in earlier in the food chain to examine exactly what the effects of socio-economic status are in brain development.  Do they make you more or less likely to get in trouble with the law?  And can we intervene at an early age and improve those skills?” 

It will be a few years before the researchers know the full results of this particular study.  But through other studies, Bunge has seen interesting changes as brains mature.

In one study, her team found that while adults’ prefrontal cortexes are highly activated in certain areas when they resist impulses, children’s are not.  In the real world, this lack of a strong impulse control center means that teens are less able to withstand the temptation of a new reward, even if it comes with certain risks.

“If your friend says, ‘Hey, let’s try this drug, it will be fun,’ you might not be able to use the information you know about the possible negative consequences to resist,” says Bunge.

In another study, Bunge and her colleagues found that children tend to make riskier choices than adults, and they do so because it’s enjoyable.  When faced with different hypothetical choices, adults tended to select the safe choice; children often picked the riskier one.  The kids knew they were making the riskier choice, says Bunge.  The study was able to identify the region of the prefrontal cortex that was activated as they took their gamble.

The melding of brain imaging and the law is a new and gray area, according to Kathryn Abrams, law professor at UC Berkeley, and a participant in the project. 

“Right now, we don’t know how different kinds of neuroscience are going to have implications for the law,” says Abrams.  “Legal decision makers will be able to function better if they understand how these differences emerge.”

One of the goals of the project is to inform the legal community about the current state of neuroscience research so that lawyers, judges and juries will better know how to evaluate colorful pictures of brains when they are presented in court.

Such insights have already greatly influenced the law as it relates to children.  In 2005, a case called Roper vs Simmons had the US Supreme Court ruling  that capital punishment for minors was unconstitutional.  Groups of scientists had sent in “friend of the court” briefs outlining the current state of psychology and neurology research which demonstrated in part that the  brain does not finish developing until an individual is in their early 20s.

Bunge hopes her research and that of her colleagues, showing that teenagers’ brains make them more prone to poor judgement, will influence court decisions when kids break the law.

“Overturning the death sentence for minors was a monumental victory,” says Bunge.  “But now we need to go one step further and reconsider the large number of teenagers who are in jail for life without parole, and whether or not something could have been done differently with them.”

sole source: onlin article by Rachel Tompa at www.berkeley.edu on 10/16/08.

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