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.

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