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Development of Brain Behavior Integration Systems Related to Criminal Culpability from Childhood to Young Adulthood: Does it Stop at 18 Years?

Abstract

The rate at which the brain develops from conception to adulthood, and how that maturational process relates to brain’s product, behavior, has been a major topic for the neurosciences with implications to legal practice, most dramatically in the case of the death penalty. Based partly on neuroscience evidence for protracted maturation of executive brain systems, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that capital punishment is unconstitutional for crimes committed while under the age of 18. Much more data have since been acquired on multiple indices of brain development and behavior, and a question now facing the courts is whether the cutoff age of 18 has a scientific basis or, from the developmental neuroscience evidence, it is arbitrary and in need for re-evaluation. Here, I present methods used by neuroscientists to measure parameters of brain development related to complex behavior, and summarize the major findings to date. Since 2005, there have been several large-scale studies revealing multimodal brain parameters related to major domains of behavior. These studies converge to show protracted development of brain tissue and its connectivity, as well as physiologic parameters of resting-state and task-related activity, which underlie the ability of the brain to process and integrate information. The developmental course of these differences does not reach its apex at 18, indeed it continues into the early 20s. I conclude that this 18 and older population, probably up to around age 23, is therefore just as vulnerable to the effects on behavior (especially behavioral control) of the lack of maturation of these brain structures and functions as are 17-year-olds.

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Correspondence to Ruben C. Gur.

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This article is part of the Special Issue: Law, Neuroscience, and Death as a Penalty for the Late Adolescent Class; Dr. Robert Leark, Guest Editor.

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Gur, R.C. Development of Brain Behavior Integration Systems Related to Criminal Culpability from Childhood to Young Adulthood: Does it Stop at 18 Years?. J Pediatr Neuropsychol 7, 55–65 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40817-021-00101-1

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Keywords

  • Brain development
  • Criminal culpability
  • Juvenile
  • Neuroimaging