Arts & Sciences Brain development/Law/Policy School of Law School of Medicine

Scholars highlight impact of early adversity on developing brain, implications for criminal justice

(L-R) Experts Anneliese Schaefer, Deanna Barch and Susan Appleton discussed how neuroscience can help non-scientists understand the impact of early adversity on developing brain. Elizabeth Scott joined Wednesday's conversation by phone. (Photo: Evie Hemphill, St. Louis Public Radio)

From NPR’s St. Louis Public Radio

The early development of the human brain begins in utero and continues into a person’s early-to-mid-20s. In that time, various environmental factors such as poverty, toxins and violence can influence that development. Among adolescent youth, who are susceptible to engaging in risky behavior, the impact of such stressors can also potentially lead to criminal activity.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh was joined by a panel of experts to further explore what goes on in the adolescent brain, what may cause some to turn to criminal activity and how the justice system is, or is not, responding.

Deanna Barch, professor and chair of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University, said there’s growing understanding that a host of environmental factors influence brain development in children. She gave an example of that effect.

“There’s a part of our brain called the ‘hippocampus’ that’s very important for our ability to manage stress and respond effectively stress. And that’s an area of the brain that we know … is very strongly impacted by early adversity,” Barch added. “The hippocampus is also important for memory and learning.”

The Neuroscience and Society initiative of Washington University’s School of Medicine aims to give neuroscientists a better understanding of the societal implications of their work and help non-scientists such as lawmakers, judges and policy reformers become aware of how the brain develops – and whether they should take it into account.

Elizabeth Scott, law professor and vice dean for curriculum at Columbia Law School, explained why teenagers are more likely to engage in risky ventures.

“There are several factors that contribute to this: Adolescents tend to be sensation-seeking or thrill-seeking, they have poor impulse control, they’re less able than adults to regulate strong emotions and they’re very sensitive to social context, particularly to peers,” Scott said, adding that scientists have linked all these traits to brain development.

Anneliese Schaefer, professor of neurology at Washington University, noted that the main goal when dealing with youth who’ve engaged in crime is about enhancing the brain and decreasing the odds of a convicted teenager re-offending.

“[It’s] not necessarily [about] whether we convict somebody or what their ultimate sentence is, but how they serve out that sentence is a great example of how we can think about these policies and better serve,” Schaefer said. She explained that evolving the brain doesn’t happen in isolation.

Barch added to the conversation by explaining the harmful effects of solitary confinement on the brain.

“If you deprive an adolescent of social inputs as they’re developing, that’s going to have an impact on their typical brain development. Both from a learning perspective, learning how to engage in appropriate social interactions, they’re [also] not to going to have feedback that is critical for driving the way the brain wires itself up and connects different brain regions together,” she said.

Susan Appleton, professor at Washington University School of Law, emphasized how neuroscience findings can help call for policy reform.

“Whether more poverty interventions for example, more interventions with pregnant women, whether or not other kinds of supports could stave of some kinds of these problems,” Appleton said. “Although they’d be expensive at the outset, they’d be much less expensive in the long run than some of the social problems that result when we don’t attend to such problems.”

  Listen at St. Louis on the Air.