Friday, May 30, 2008

The Teenage Brain (Or Lack Thereof)

by Donna Pendergast

As every parent of a teenager knows, the teenage brain is different from the adult brain. All jokes aside, some of these differences have neurobiological and neuropsychological underpinnings. Although the adolescent brain is fully grown in size it is a long way from mature. Along with everything else in the body the brain changes significantly in adolescence.

According to recent studies and neuroimaging research the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, which controls planning, emotion, impulse control, and the ability to assess future consequences, is not fully developed until one is in their early- to mid-twenties. This research confirms that the distinction between teenagers and adults is more than one of age. It is one of physiological maturation.

Is an immature brain an excuse for committing a crime? The hot-button issue in juvenile criminal justice today is how to deal with the physical reality of brain development while demanding accountability for crimes committed by teens.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF A BRAIN

A key difference between adolescent and adult brains concerns the frontal lobe. During maturation, the human brain develops from front to back. The largest part of the brain, the frontal lobes, are in the front part of the cerebrum, the most sophisticated area of the brain. The size of the frontal lobes does not change significantly during the adolescent years but there are dramatic changes in their composition. A small area of the frontal lobes, the prefrontal cortices, are the last areas of the brain to evolve during the development process.

The adolescent brain truly is a work in progress. Two processes are taking place at a rapid rate: pruning, the process by which unnecessary nerve synapses (gray matter) in the frontal lobe are eliminated) as well as myelination, involving white matter that envelops connections to stabilize them. This conversion of gray to white matter is critical to making the brain's operation more efficient and developing the neural networks regulating behavior. The frontal lobes regulate the amygdala, the brain's emotional center, which controls anger, fear, recklessness, and gut responses.

A fully developed prefrontal cortex helps adults predict the consequences of their actions. In adolescents, the less developed prefrontal cortex affects the adolescent's ability for mental reasoning, decision-making, and assessment of consequences.

WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE

What are the
implications of adolescent brain development on the juvenile justice system? Because their brains are not fully mature, teens have a more limited capacity to self-regulate their impulses. Teens do not handle social pressure and other stresses the way adults do. However, despite brain immaturity, the fact remains that the vast majority of teens do not commit Columbine-type massacres and other forms of violent crime.

Is the greater question what is wrong with our country that we have such a pervasive problem with violent juvenile crime? Other developed countries do not have anywhere near our violent juvenile crime rate.

It's easy to know what to do with a teen such as
Jean Pierre Orliewcz. Orliewcz (pictured right) was recently tried in the Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit for stabbing to death an acquaintance and then telling him "just let it take over" as his victim lay dying in a pool of blood on a garage floor. Orliewcz then beheaded his victim and used a blow torch in an attempt to obliterate the victim's fingerprints and further conceal his identity. He later told authorities that he was "excited" by the idea of killing someone and getting away with it. At his sentencing last month, the judge told Orlewicz "There is a difference between mental illness and evil. You are tantamount to evil."

Clearly we cannot allow juveniles to be exonerated from any consequences for their criminal actions. An immature brain should not entitle juvenile offenders to a "get out of jail free card." Teenagers who demonstrate a vicious and callous disregard for human life must not be allowed to blame their actions on an undeveloped brain and walk away from their crime. But what about the criminal cases that are less clear-cut and do not involve the taking of a human life?

Neuroimaging research alone cannot determine an adolescent's criminal responsibility. Imaging is not diagnostic and you cannot do a scan to settle moral and legal questions. The big issue is: How do we balance necessary deterrence and the need to protect society with the best practices that encourage rehabilitation of a juvenile offender? There are no easy answers.

Statements made in this post are my own and not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

6 comments:

Vanessa Leggett said...

Interesting post, Donna. I have a comment to this excerpt:

"Clearly we cannot allow juveniles to be exonerated from any consequences for their criminal actions. An immature brain should not entitle juvenile offenders to a 'get out of jail free card.' Teenagers who demonstrate a vicious and callous disregard for human life must not be allowed to blame their actions on an undeveloped brain and walk away from their crime."

I can think of several cases where adult parents persuaded minors to murder another family member with the promise that if caught, there won't be consequences because of their age at the time of the crime. In many cases, these adults lean on their children by exaggerating abuse at the hands of his/her spouse, who, they convince the child, must be stopped once and for all.

Lucy Puryear MD said...

Way to go Donna. I could have written that post myself! It's rare when I agree with a prosecuter about responsibility, but you are right on on this one.

I am deeply disturbed when we are trying 11, 12, 13 year olds as adults. They are NOT adults and their brains are in no way mature enough to allow them to function as adults. It's why we see so many teenagers just making dumb ass decisions: assuming I won't get pregnant if I just have sex once, let's just see what these drugs do to me, why not put multiple peircings all over my body...they are lacking a long range perspective and have a hard time thinking of long term consequences. Children and teens feel as if they have an immunity towards anything bad ever happening to them.

There are cases for sure where someone is "evil" (see a previous post of mine). They should be prosecuted. But most children and teens are incredibly impulsive, immature, and don't have the same ability to make rational, thoughtful decisions as adults. Their frontal lobe is not developed.

This has been my same argument about those who commit crimes who have sever psychotic disorders. On neuroimaging their frontal lobes are not functioning as yours and mine. They are working with a more "childlike" brain; impulsive, lact of rationality, and impaired decision making abilitly.

Thanks for the great post.

Lucy

Leah said...

I agree. One of my favorite examples of this is that we deem our teens unable to consent to sex before a certain age, but that same 14 year old can murder someone and they are, in some jurisdictions, tried as an adult. Doesn't make sense to me. The courts shouldn't be able to have it both ways.

Leah said...

I agree. One of my favorite examples of this is that we deem our teens unable to consent to sex before a certain age, but that same 14 year old can murder someone and they are, in some jurisdictions, tried as an adult. Doesn't make sense to me. The courts shouldn't be able to have it both ways.

Soobs said...

I don't know...while a 11, 12 or 13 year old may have an immature brain, I'm not sure that if they commit murder, they should be exempt from the full ramifications of said act. How many 12 year olds murder? Not many. Which should prove the point that just because they are young, doesn't mean they don't know the difference between right and wrong. Case in point....today, Nathanial Abraham was busted for narcotics and intent to deliver. He was released from prison two years ago, at the age of 18, after murdering someone at the age of 12. He isn't exempt, IMO, because of his age, and he should have served life. This wasn't a case of "immature brain," IMO.

Leah said...

I don't think that teens should not be punished, but I do think that the DP should be off the table. And some of them might even deserve a life sentence but they shouldn't be tried as adults, because they aren't.