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19 Crim. Just. 51 (2004-2005)
Relevance of Brain Research to Juvenile Defense

handle is hein.journals/cjust19 and id is 257 raw text is: Juenl  Jusic

Robert E. Shepherd, Jr.

The Relevance of Brain
Research to Juvenile Defense
arents, teachers, social workers, judges, and
lawyers have long recognized that adoles-
cents, despite their physical similarities to
adults, differ greatly from their elders in the way
they react to particular situations, especially stressful
ones. Psychologists, from Jean Piaget on, have told
those who work with these young people that they
are still developmentally immature and cannot be
expected to act precisely like adults. The late Justice
Lewis Powell reminded us of this in the first of the
juvenile death penalty cases, Eddings i  Oklahoma,
455 U.S. 104 (1982), when he opined that [A]do-
lescents, particularly in the early and middle teen
years, are more vulnerable, more impulsive, and less
self-disciplined than adults ... because adolescents
may have less capacity to control their conduct and
to think in long-range terms than adults. (455 U.S.
at 115, n. I I (quoting TWENTIETH CENTURY FUND
Research reported ii the past five years, based on the
use of new technologies, has presented participants
in the juvenile justice system with evidence from
hard science to explain what they have intuitively
known from their personal experiences.
This scientific evidence, cited extensively in sev-
eral of the briefs filed in the pending Supreme Court
death penalty case of Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633,
has broader relevance to those who practice in the
juvenile court or who represent juveniles in adult
courts. It also may assist lawyers representing
youths to argue their points more persuasively.
Scientific brain research
Since the early 1990s, a number of scientific re-
searchers have been examining the brains of adolescents
using new technologies, such as magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI), initially for the purposes of discovering

the causes of such disabilities as attention deficit hyper-
activity disorder (ADHD) and autism, and this research
has led to some important discoveries about the brains
of all teenagers. Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute
of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has
been using high-powered MRI snapshots of the brains
of about 1,800 children and teenagers taken at regular
intervals for about 13 years to chart the neurological de-
velopment of their brains longitudinally. He and others
have tracked the individual brains of young people as
they matured by observing them with MRIs at periodic
intervals. (Jay N. Giedd et al., Brain Development Dur-
ing Childhood and Adolescence: A Longitudinal MRI
Srudy, 2 NATURE NEUROSCIENCE 861 (1999).) The study
shows that the frontal lobes of the brain continue to ma-
ture during adolescence. This is especially true of the
prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in the exec-
utive functions of the brain-those involved when a per-
son plans and implements behaviors by selecting, coor-
dinating, and applying the cognitive skills necessary to
accomplish goals.
Any disruption of functions associated with the
fi-ontal lobes in adults may lead to impairments of
foresight, strategic thinking, and risk management. Im-
pairment of frontal lobe functioning also is associated
with poor impulse control, difficulties in concentra-
tion, attention, and self-monitoring, and impairments
in decision making. One hallmark of frontal lobe dys-
function is difficulty in making decisions that are in the
long-term best interests of the individual. (Antonio R.
Damasio & Steven W. Anderson, The Frontal Lobes,
Heilman & Edward Valenstein eds., 4th ed. 2003).)
The longitudinal MRI studies done by Giedd and oth-
ers indicate this execLitive area of the brain is one of the
last parts of the brain to reach maturity. (Nitin Gogtay
et al., Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Develop-
ment During Childhood Through Early Adulthood,
ENCE 8174, 8177 (2004).) During adolescence, the size
of the frontal lobes is not significantly altered, but their
composition undergoes dramatic changes while cogni-
tive functioning improves. One important change is
that gray matter thins. (Elizabeth R. Sowell et al.,
Mapping Continued Brain Growth and Gray Matter
Density Reduction in Dorsal Frontal Corte.: Inverse
Relationshil)s During Postadolescent Brain Matura-
tion, 21 J. NEUROSCIENCE 8819 (2001) (studying age
groups 7-I 1, 12-16, and 23-30).) A contributing factor


Robert E. Shepherd, Jr., is emeritus professor of law at the
University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia. He is also a
contributing editor to CriminalJustice magazine and former
chair of the Section's Juvenile Justice Committee.

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