Inside young offenders' brains: Where impulsiveness comes from
June 27th, 2011
03:00 PM ET

Inside young offenders' brains: Where impulsiveness comes from

There's new research to challenge the idea that a young convicted criminal can't change his or her behavior. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the brains of juvenile offenders aren't necessarily maturing abnormally; rather, they are delayed in their typical development.

"It raises very important questions about our treatment of juvenile offenders," said Benjamin Shannon, of the Department of Radiology at Washington University, St. Louis, and lead author of the study. "We need to have a discussion about the idea that these people deserve very harsh prison treatment, that someone at the age of 14 can be ruined for life."

More than 90,000 people aged 20 and younger are incarcerated in residential placement facilities, according to the most recent statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Researchers looked at more than 100 juvenile offenders incarcerated in a maximum-security facility. They found specific patterns of brain activity associated with impulsive behavior.

"What we found was that it was the relationship between their motor planning regions and other parts of the brain associated with attention and control that predicted whether they were impulsive or not," Shannon said.

Study authors then wanted to find out whether they would see these effects in non-offenders, and whether they would fade in older individuals. Researchers tested 95 people aged 7 to 31. And they did find that younger brains seemed to have a "more impulsive" brain connectivity pattern; older participants' brains seemed to have a "less impulsive nature," Shannon said.

In other words, although the imprisoned young people received severe punishment, they have the potential to grow out of their impulsivity just like other children, and therapies may be developed to help them do that, he said.

"These juvenile offenders, they're not monsters, they're not something completely out of the ordinary. They're basically on the same developmental trajectory as the rest of us; they're just delayed a bit," Shannon said.

The next steps would be to follow up with these participants to see if the brain patterns have changed, and to see if there's therapy or training inspired by these brain relationships that might help, he said.

This research is not aimed at using brain scanning in a preemptive way - it's not to be used as a means of seeing who might be predestined to commit crimes based on brain patterns, Shannon said.

But it does contribute to a growing body of research suggesting that the brains of young offenders are different - even some 3-year-olds have brain signatures associated with committing a crime in the future. For more on that subject, check out this Q&A about the nature vs. nurture questions that arise.

soundoff (264 Responses)
  1. jjrc1

    no really I thought it was the knees...

    June 27, 2011 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bro

      i literally laughed so hard

      July 13, 2011 at 15:49 | Report abuse |
    • peteq

      More data to support the fact that child imprisonment is not only immoral, but increases american crime directly. The US is one of the only countries in the world that is foolish enough to imprison our children. Troubled children are 97% rehabilitative (unless they are placed behind razor wire or bars).

      August 15, 2011 at 10:18 | Report abuse |
  2. Linda Davis

    HOG WASH!!!

    June 27, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Rob

    I always knew Philip K. Dick was on to something.

    June 27, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Joe Keepers

    So there are two burning questions that come to mind:
    1) Are their more juveniles incarcerated now because of "zero tolerance" policies implemented across the nation now in schools and society in general? Do the prevent the proper treatment/education of kids that make mistakes. That is does in prevent them from quickly rejoining " normal" society and continuing the educational process of what is acceptable?
    2) If a three year old's brain shows "brain markers" of future criminal behavior, doesn't that indicate that the parenting process between 0 and 3 is a lot more important than recognized and given the relative infrequency of criminal behavior in society, doesn't that given us a chance to identify the factors that would lead to those markers at the ripe old age of 3 and future criminal behavior.

    June 27, 2011 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. setlib

    Speaking as a mother of a child with ADHD - by "impulsiveness" they are probably talking about the same delays in executive function that are associated with ADHD, a neurological disorder present in 5-10% of the population which is linked to difficulty in school and higher crime rates. If elementary school teachers and pediatricians were better trained at recognizing ADHD and could begin catching those children early and train them how to compensate for their impulsivity and be more successful, you might see an improvement in high school graduation rates and a reduction in crime. It's far cheaper to prevent crime when kids are young than to incarcerate them later.

    June 27, 2011 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sienna

      I agree, early intervention is important in establishing behavior modifications for these children.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:01 | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      The problem is there seems to be a stigma associated with ADHD, even within the schools. People seem to be more concerned about "over diagnosing" ADHD than they care to help children. We need to educate adults, Teachers, School Administrators and School boards. Children who are diagnosed and medicated are less likely to use illegal drugs later in life and have better outcomes (eg. fewer convictions).

      June 28, 2011 at 10:05 | Report abuse |
    • Psych nurse joe

      I agree totaly.

      July 14, 2011 at 05:44 | Report abuse |
  6. FredD

    The primary reason for the increase in juvenile sentences is the desire to please victims and/or their families. That should be irrelevant.

    June 27, 2011 at 18:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Bob

    Retribution is a sign of an immature individual. All things that anyone does is due to genetics, their past history and their current environmental scenario. No one can change any of these at time zero, that is at the actual present time. We can only make a prediction of what the best solution is and then act accordingly. This is the skill that needs to be taught. Criminals are not looking ahead. It has been well demonstrated that children that suffer abuse and adults under a large amount of stress have a shorter time horizon than those who have good childhood experiences and are experiencing reduced stress levels. These situations are all due to the environment. The only way to change behavior is to provide experiences consistent with performing the desired behavior. That takes planning and practice. That is what parents and teachers should teach.

    June 27, 2011 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DaveNYUSA

      Lemme guess; you are the parent that blames all bad on teachers, and take credit for all the good, right?

      June 28, 2011 at 01:21 | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      I agree with Bob. Also I think that there are fewer people willing to do this with their children, because of stress, no time, or laziness, but they have to make time and be consistent with helping these kids change their behavior.

      June 28, 2011 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
  8. julianpenrod

    The past has seen many other "explanations" for criminal activity, all of which were claimed by many to "seem right at the moment", then were condemned by many as "insipid and moronic" when they failed to work. Abuse when they were young, not counting those who had fine childhoods or were the abusers themselves. Not having role models, which fell apart in less than half a generation of government approved role models being provided in schools. Poverty which, among other things, didn't explain kids from good families becoming criminals or criminals who made a big score not using it to better their way of life. Ten or fifteen years from now, if this idea of "mental age not catching up with physical age" is employed, which of its failings will be what people then call the most obviously idiotic? The fact that, if these young people have such depleted mental mahe-ups, why isn't this same kind of behavior seen in younger children or the right mental age? What about the depraved indifference to human life that so many even young criminals show? It's not that they don't know the meaning of life yet, many of them know what life is and still seek to destroy it. Painfully. It's apparently all an attempt to get around acknowledging a principle reason for wanton criminality, the lack of senses of empathy, sympathy and a respect for ethics.

    June 27, 2011 at 21:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. D Caf

    Why even print this when you still need to follow up in a few years with these participants to see if their brains changed. Come back when this (costly) study is complete. Since the brain is still developing into early adulthood, there should be no surprise that changes have taken place. Since human brain development has been going on ALWAYS, it still won't be a souce as to why there are more young, violent criminals in the world today

    June 28, 2011 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kay

      Actually there are not more young violent criminals in the world today than before. What we have today is a more prolific media, who has the capability of reporting everything simultaneously and usually only reports what the "bad" kids do, because people don't want to hear any good news.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:00 | Report abuse |
  10. DaveNYUSA

    "Brain holds clues to impulsiveness"
    Now there is some in depth journalism!

    June 28, 2011 at 01:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. HumHum

    Fine, create nice well behaved kids to be upstanding upright citizens till the final ends and unproven afterward and more proveable nothingness like shutting down a lightbulb. There is a post Maoist belief that there is now and then there is nothingness that sums up there version of atheism.
    Real solution is to prevent the creation of them in the first place from impulsive mothers and fathers that is still badly studied even today.

    June 28, 2011 at 05:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Mike

    When a child is made to feel bad, about a behavior that is cyclic, the behavior does not stop. Children who are badly treated, are more immature, and by badly, I do not mean beaten or anything like that, but rather, being shouted at, for childish behavior, keeps tha child immature. THat happens with drugs, impulses, bad words, masturation, even sucking the thumb.

    July 8, 2011 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Gael McCarte


    Justice needs a total overhaul

    July 30, 2011 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. peteq

    Stop child imprisonment and we will see an immediate drop in crime and the decline will increase over time as we discontinue developing criminals.

    August 15, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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