The Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, now in its second year, is a collaboration between the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) and the Petrie-Flom Center. The collaboration includes a Senior Fellow in residence, public symposia, and a Law and Neuroscience Seminar at Harvard Law School taught by the Hon. Nancy Gertner. For more information, see the full press release on the launch of the program.

2015-2017 Senior Fellow

Robert Kinscherff, PhD, JD is the second Senior Fellow in Law and Neuroscience and is in residence for 2015-2017. Kinscherff is currently a senior administrator and doctoral clinical psychology faculty member at William James College, faculty at the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Senior Associate at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. He will pursue original research, mentoring, and public engagement related to issues of neurodevelopment and juvenile justice, which will include expert symposia and public events to promote focused discussion on questions at the intersection of adolescent neurodevelopment, juvenile justice, and the law. 

2015-2017 Area of Inquiry: Adolescence, Juvenile Justice, and the Law

Social and legal responses to misconduct in adolescence have posed persistent challenges over the last century. These challenges have been reflected in public policy and law from the establishment of the first Juvenile Court in 1899 through reforms in legal procedure driven by the landmark US Supreme Court decision in Gault, the backing away from the rehabilitative ideal of juvenile justice in the wake of the “crack and guns epidemic” of the 1980s and predictions of emerging youthful “superpredators,” and three major US Supreme Court cases in the past decade addressing execution of juveniles and sentences of life without possibility of parole. The pendulum swings between the rehabilitative ideal of juvenile justice and more punitive approaches to misconduct by adolescents reflect deep ambivalence regarding the social definitions of “adolescence,” the extent to which adolescents are capable of change, and the degree to which they should be held as accountable as adults under the law.

Behavioral scientists have long described the period of development we now characterize as “adolescence.” Now, brain imaging technologies are allowing scientists to map the processes of neurodevelopment which are triggered by the onset of puberty and to consider the neurological underpinnings of adolescent impulsivity, emotionality, sensation-seeking, risk perception, and vulnerabilities to peer influence. These technologies are helping to understand how adolescents are capable of thoughtful reasoning and decision-making in some situations but vulnerable to rash, emotionally-driven, and even clearly dangerous actions in other circumstances. 

Legislatures and courts struggle with making sense of adolescence and especially of how to balance recognition of their emerging autonomy and maturity with meaningful moral and legal accountability for their decisions and behaviors—especially if these decisions and behaviors would be dealt with as serious crimes if they were adults. This fundamental challenge is further complicated by the disproportionate penetration into the juvenile justice system of youth who have significant histories of adversity and trauma, diagnosable and significantly impairing behavioral health disorders and/or learning disabilities, and are impoverished youth of color.

Kinscherff's goal during his fellowship year will be to explore the ways in which this new science may have practical and theoretical applications for the law. How—or should—the law take into account adolescence in addressing serious misconduct?  What implications might emerging developmental neuroscience have for conceptualizing and implementing juvenile justice and criminal justice responses to serious misconduct? How might issues of race, poverty, and significant exposure to adversity and chronic “toxic stress” interact with neurodevelopment, public policy, and legal practices to contribute to disproportionate representation of youth of color with unmet behavioral health and learning needs? Might there be a constitutional “right to normative neurodevelopment” that should preclude incarceration of youth with adults or conditions of confinement which may compromise brain development in adolescence and early young adulthood? How should neuroimaging be handled as a matter of expert evidence in state, federal, and administrative proceedings? What constitutional doctrinal developments, if any, should occur in juvenile and criminal justice in light of emerging developmental neuroscience and in the wake of the US Supreme Court decisions in Roper, Graham, and Miller?  

Kinscherff will be joined in this work by eminent CLBB faculty, including Judge Nancy Gertner, Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, Professor Leah Somerville, Professor Joshua Buckholtz and Professor Gina Vincent

2014-2015 Area of Inquiry: Pain and the Law

In fall 2014, Amanda C. Pustilnik was the inaugural Senior Fellow for Law and Applied Neuroscience. Professor Pustilnik, who is currently Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, addressed the practical and theoretical applications that the new science of brain imaging technologies can and should have for law, particularly when those technologies are applied to issues of pain. Questions addressed in her work and the events she organized included: How should pain neuroimaging be handled as a matter of expert evidence in state, federal, and administrative proceedings? What doctrinal changes, if any, should occur in disability law to account for the ways in which chronic pain can become a central nervous system disorder? Tort law currently compensates physical and psychiatric or emotional injuries differently; if chronic pain is a subjective experience rooted in brain dysfunction, is the ongoing pain of an injury meaningfully different from a psychiatric harm?

Learn more about Professor Pustilnik’s work at the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience by watching the events she organized around the subjects of pain, brain imaging, and the law!

Law and Applied Neuroscience Project Leaders

Hon. Nancy Gertner, JD, MA

Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School

Faculty Affiliate, Petrie-Flom Center

Faculty, Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at MGH


Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD

Co-Director, Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at MGH

Senior Consultant, Massachusetts General Hospital Law and Psychiatry Service

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Faculty Affiliate, Petrie-Flom Center

I. Glenn Cohen, JD

Faculty Director, Petrie-Flom Center

Professor, Harvard Law School

Faculty, Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at MGH


Bruce H. Price, MD

Co-Director, Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at MGH

Chief of Neurology, McLean Hospital

Associate in Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital

Associate Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School

Holly Fernandez Lynch, JD, MBioethics

Executive Director, Petrie-Flom Center

Faculty, Center for Bioethics, Harvard Medical School



For more information