Scanning for juvenile delinquency – Impulsiveness in youth is not a criminal offence, although if it reaches into the realm of delinquency it can quickly become so. Researchers in the US are using functional magnetic resonance imaging to see whether the brains of young offenders differ in some behavioural way from those of non-criminals. Seemingly, they do in terms of the communication between regions associated with motor control and self control.
I asked lead researcher Benjamin Shannon of WUSTL to explain the findings.
“We scanned 107 incarcerated juveniles, between the ages of 14-18,” he told me. “We then compared the results in that population to a group of 95 individuals from the community between the ages of 7 and 31. We saw that the pattern of brain activity associated with impulsivity in the juvenile offenders was related with age in the community sample – younger kids had “more impulsive” patterns of motor-planning functional connectivity.”
The findings suggest that at least a portion of the impulsive behaviour often seen in juvenile offenders can be explained by the way different parts of their brains communicate. “At least in terms of this particular measure of motor-planning functional connectivity, you have the brain of a 7-year-old in the body of a 15-year-old,” Shannon said.
The team is now in the process of planning our follow-up studies. “We’d like to know if juveniles in the judicial system ‘grow out’ of this brain connectivity pattern naturally, and if that’s related to improved impulse control,” Shannon adds. Another fascinating area they hope to investigate is what effect treatment might have on this neurological issue. “If we have kids perform a task that causes them to co-activate motor-planning regions and the attention and control networks (for example, learning a musical instrument), can we cause those parts of the brain to communicate better?” Shannon asks. Might such occupational learning tasks nudge a young offender towards a more adult pattern of functional connectivity and behaviour?
As an aside, previous work (2005) Shannon and colleagues used five different imaging techniques to look at brain activity in 764 people, including those with Alzheimer’s disease, those on the brink of dementia and healthy individuals. They found that the areas of the brain that young, healthy people use when daydreaming are the same areas that fail in people who have Alzheimer’s disease. If you are interested in learning about juvenile delinquency to a larger extent, a masters in criminology can provide you with an extensive education on the subject as well as the tools necessary for a possible career in the field.
As ever, there are caveats with interpreting any brain scans, whether looking at juvenile delinquency or daydreaming in Alzheimer’s patients. Specigically, while it is an incredibly powerful and advanced technique, fMRI merely tracks oxygenated blood flow in real-time and assumes that a higher level of blood in certain regions of the brain correlates with activity in that part of the brain. It may well do, but activity does not, as far as I know necessarily correlate with specific activities linked to specific behaviour or actions. It might, but we cannot be 100% certain with the current state of the art. Although it’s perhaps stretching the metaphor somewhat but blood flow in the brain is akin to electron flow in a computer, just because the hard-drive light is flickering doesn’t necessarily mean that the hard drive is carrying out a particular task. Just saying.
Shannon, B., Raichle, M., Snyder, A., Fair, D., Mills, K., Zhang, D., Bache, K., Calhoun, V., Nigg, J., Nagel, B., Stevens, A., & Kiehl, K. (2011). Premotor functional connectivity predicts impulsivity in juvenile offenders Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1108241108