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A Troubled Childhood, A Troubled Brain, How New Research May Affect Criminal Law

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Image REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

Recent discoveries in neuroscience could be shaping the future of criminal law. New studies are showing how a difficult childhood could affect brain development increasing the risk of crimes committed as a teen.

The brain's development may be impacted greatly by positive or negative experiences during childhood. A traumatic or difficult childhood could alter how the brain develops and affect certain functions. The difficult childhood could cause a child to take more impulsive risks and possibly increase the risk of mental health problems and behavioral issues. New studies are urging the legal system to take into consideration how the brain develops in response to this difficult upbringing.

The research into the new neuroscience discoveries and their possible impact on criminal law was led by Dr. Eamon McCrory from the University College London. Combining recent research, there is new understanding to how trauma affects the brain and in turn affecting criminal behavior.

Previous research from Seena Fazel, MD, from Oxford University has shown that traumatic brain injury, either from an accident or abuse, greatly increases the risk of being involved in a violent crime. Other research, led by Huw Williams, PhD, from the University of Exeter corroborates Dr. Fazel's findings. In Dr. Williams' studies, nearly 45 percent of young offenders had traumatic brain injury and that more brain injuries were also associated with more violent crimes.

The researchers believe that young individuals who commit crimes may be at greater risk because of potential brain injury but also extenuating circumstances. Chances are that young offenders are coming from a difficult childhood or may come from a family that is at a disadvantage socially or economically. This could increase the risk of brain injuries, due to abuse, and also change how the brain develops. These factors also affect behavior and could cause them more trouble at school or fitting in to society.

By highlighting all the recent research on how the brain develops differently due to abuse, injury or a difficult childhood, the researchers hope the legal system works more closely with neurosurgeons to take into account possible brain injury.

There is more to criminal behavior than one risk factor but by being able to identify impaired brain development or brain injury early, could lead to better treatment options. This early intervention could possibly reduce crime as well as the cost of imprisonment.

The study will be presented as part of the Neuroscience, Children and the Law seminar by the Economic and Social Research Council and should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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