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Michael Litman Jan. 12, 2018

How Head Injuries Might Contribute to Crime Rates

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is associated with many negative things. Headaches, anxiety, depression, and memory problems are all scientifically linked to TBI. A traumatic brain injury can impact suffers’ ability to make positive and rational decisions, and even leave them open to manipulation by others. But according to a report, from the UK, written based on research from the University of Exeter, in mid-2017, TBI may also have a more subtle but life-destroying symptom: criminal behavior.

Many who face serious criminal charges also suffer from the effects of a traumatic brain injury, so much so that one research study after another tells us the two are not coincidentally related.

Research reveals that many people who suffer from TBIs are more likely to engage in criminal activities than they were before they suffered their brain injury. Often, TBI sufferers respond to stressful situations with excessive behavior, turning a minor irritating event into a source of anger and hostility. Assessing and responding, not improperly reacting, to any situation is a challenge for those who have suffered a TBI.

Exeter researchers interviewed 200 prisoners and found that 60 percent of them confessed to suffering some form of TBI as children, from a variety of events such as falls, car accidents, and sports injuries. Researchers suggest many of these TBIs affected the natural development of social judgment and impulse control, the lack of both being accepted as also contributing to criminal behavior.

“To begin with,” report author, and Associate Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, Huw Williams explained, “the young brain, being a work in progress, is prone to ‘risk-taking,’ more vulnerable to getting injured, and suffers subtle to more severe problems in attention, concentration and managing one’s mood and behavior.”

But looking at the way the brain influences behavior is not a settled area of the law, although these neurological questions are being considered in our courts with increasing frequency. A study by Duke University School of Law Bioethicist Nita Farahany “found that the number of judicial opinions mentioning neuroscience or behavioral genetics more than doubled between 2005 and 2012,” according to Wired.

Recently, researchers from the Harvard University Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior looked at 17 cases of people with brain damage who went on to commit crimes. The cases were described in research articles that included images of each subject’s brain. Using these images, the group looked at the areas of the brain that were damaged and compared them to previously described brain networks. Their conclusions generally reinforced those of the Exeter researchers, but with a couple of disclaimers.

Harvard researchers confessed their research was strictly forensic. The cases they reviewed were of people who have been examined by others after committing crimes. The Harvard researchers didn’t examine anyone directly. Fiery Cushman, a Harvard psychologist and author on the study, says that though this study is in no way definitive, it “may prove useful for ongoing efforts to understand, predict, and assign responsibility for criminal acts.”

To better the relationship between the way the brain operates, and criminal liability, consider how a healthy teenager faces criminal charges. Their age and maturity level are often taken into account when determining the actual charge and appropriate punishment. However, neither age nor maturity level can currently be used as an affirmative defense for commission of the crime. 

If you find yourself in need of legal counsel, contact The Law Office of Michael D. Litman online or call us.


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