Reference Work Entry

Handbook of Neuroethics

pp 1721-1735


Normal Brain Development and Child/Adolescent Policy

  • Sara B. JohnsonAffiliated withJohns Hopkins University School of Medicine Email author 
  • , Jay N. GieddAffiliated withNational Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health


In the last 25 years, magnetic resonance imaging technology has fundamentally changed how human brain development is conceptualized. Brain structures and the communication among them are now understood to change well into early adulthood in ways that impact maturity of judgment. The popular conversation about where to draw the line between childhood and adulthood for policy purposes has highlighted a number of complex neuroethical issues including: balancing responsibility and autonomy, the strengths and frailties of human competence, and decision making in the era of neuroimaging. In this chapter, two public policy issues: Informed consent and legal culpability are used to illustrate the emerging neuroethical challenges and opportunities involved in using neuroscience to inform child and adolescent policy.

This chapter begins with an overview of historical attempts to use biological benchmarks of adult maturity. This historical perspective is followed by an introduction to the neuroethical issues involved in informed consent and legal culpability for adolescents, and the brain and behavioral science that has been brought to bear on these policy questions. The focus of this scientific review is the development and deployment of the cognitive capacities that are the foundation of maturity of judgment during late childhood and adolescence: self-control, inhibition, emotion regulation, and vulnerability to peer influence. Finally, the opportunities and potential pitfalls involved in using brain science to inform child and adolescent policy are considered.