Impulses Stress Young Brains

Science: Law enforcement explores cerebral development, crime links

Monterey County Herald, The (CA)
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Section: Top Story_1

This weekend, criminal defense attorneys from all over California are meeting in Monterey for their annual conference on death penalty issues — and among other hot topics, they’re discussing the latest scientific findings on young adult brains.

Just a couple of decades ago, researchers concluded that teenage brains are not fully developed when it comes to certain rational functions such as impulse control.

Now, neuroscientists are discovering that those areas of the brain develop later than once thought — and probably don’t mature until age 22 or older.

But what many scientists accept as fact about the difficulties young people face in controlling impulses has been slow to trickle into policing and the criminal justice system.

In March 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned capital punishment for juveniles, the court cited the nation’s general dislike of the death penalty for teens — but did not discuss scientific evidence about brain function.

Sacramento-based attorney Peter Kmeto , who attended the Monterey conference, said the science of impulsive behavior in teens and young adults brings up too many “gray areas” for lawmakers.

“People want to categorize people into the good guys or bad guys,” he said. “You either have to wear a white hat or a black hat.”

In Monterey County courts, where juveniles are regularly tried as adults in violent crime cases, scientific evidence about teen and young adult brains is rarely, if ever, factored in.

“There’s been a big wave of prosecuting kids as adults,” said Bob Reyes of the Monterey County Probation Department. “But now the research is showing us that may not always be appropriate.”

Immature Brains

For decades, scientists believed that human brains were almost fully developed by age 12 or so.

Then in the 1990s, researchers found strong evidence that the brain’s prefrontal cortex — where rational processes such as impulse control and understanding of long-range consequences takes place — was far from fully developed in teenagers. Research also showed that communication between the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain continues to improve as teens move into adulthood, affecting functions such as long-term planning, problem-solving and controlling emotions.

All of this means that while it is, of course, not impossible to rein in harmful impulses, scientists say it requires a heck of a lot more work for adolescent brains than for adults. Research also shows that adding anger, trauma, repeated exposure to violence, or chronic drug or alcohol use to the brain’s developmental years will physically affect the brain.

“The 15-year-old brain does not have the biological machinery to inhibit impulses in the service of long-range planning,” writes Dr. Daniel R. Weinberger of the National Institutes of Health. “Adolescents need people or institutions to prevent them from being in a potentially deadly situation where an immature brain is left to its own devices. If a gun is put in the control of the prefrontal cortex of a hurt and vengeful 15-year-old, and it is pointed at a human target, it will very likely go off.”

The latest research using MRI scans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that the prefrontal cortex as well as other brain functions are not fully developed until the early to mid-20s, and perhaps later in young males.

“Consensus is emerging that an 18-year-old is not the same person she or he will be at 25, just as an 11-year-old is not the same as he or she will be at 18. They don’t look the same, feel the same, think the same, or act the same,” writes MIT researcher Rae Simpson.

Simpson says that car rental companies have it right. “The brain isn’t fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car.”

How Teens Think

To get police up to date on the latest science, Reyes, who runs the county’s Silver Star gang intervention program, acted on a suggestion late last year from Salinas Police Chief Louis Fetherolf to bring trainer Lisa Thurau from Cambridge, Mass., to Salinas.

Thurau’s Strategies for Youth works in tandem with a child psychiatrist from a Harvard teaching hospital, and she brought the latest understanding of how teens think to more than a dozen local probation and police officers as well as some 30 community service providers.

The workshops were funded by a state CalGRIP grant.

“I think it’s always a shock for officers to see the scientific evidence that kids literally perceive and process differently,” Thurau said.

In teens, she said, self-image often trumps self-interest, resulting in clashes with police.

Like Nantucket Kids

To test her theories, around a half-dozen youth mentors from the Silver Star Resource Center responded to contrasting scenarios in which police came across either as “authoritarian” or “authoritative.”

“We asked the youth to respond to extremely aggressive officers and to extremely persuasive ones,” Thurau said. “Assertions of force and authority may work better with adults; with kids, being persuasive and respectful works if compliance is what you’re after. Does it work with all kids? No. But it’s going to work with 90 percent of them.”

“Kids in Salinas,” she said, “respond identically to kids in Nantucket.”

Reyes said the training changed his own understanding of young people, even though he’s worked with juveniles for years.

“A lot of times you see kids and you react in certain ways,” he said.

On his lunch break, he found himself responding with suspicion to a kid who was dressed strangely. “I’d be thinking, ‘What’s with that kid?’ But because of the training, I thought, ‘That’s a kid, he’s just being a teenager.'”

“We have the expectation that they’re like mini-adults,” he said. “We forget that we used to do things like that.”

Trauma For Children

Thurau said she was stunned by the amount of trauma children in Salinas experience. “I was very touched by Salinas and its struggles, and how hard everyone’s trying to make it better,” she said. “It’s pretty powerful.”

It would be a mistake, she said, if Salinas doesn’t increase its focus on families, children and youth.

One recommendation stemming from the workshops is for county police agencies to develop policies that have officers on the lookout for youths experiencing trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We don’t seem to have a treatment in place to deal with kids right away,” Reyes said. “How can probation and police get them the help that they need, as opposed to waiting for violence to build?”

In domestic violence situations, he said, officers are used to dealing mainly with parents. “But if you don’t address (the trauma) now, that kid’s going to be the batterer.”

Reyes said local law enforcement officers are open to the suggestion and no longer mind taking on some roles traditionally assigned to social workers, especially when it comes to young people.

“Everybody’s tired of the scale of violence and wants to work as a whole community,” he said. “Rather than a shotgun approach, we want to recognize kids exposed to violence and get them services as soon as possible.”

In Monterey County, which in 2009 led the state in youth murder rates, Reyes sees such changes as critical to turning the grim statistic around.

“Hopefully it’s a call for everybody to start investing more in our youth,” he said.

Julia Reynolds can be reached 648-1187 or

Julia Reynolds
The Monterey County Herald
831 251-3011

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