Neuroscience and law

 

Developmental social neuroscience, ethics and the law

Recent advances in developmental neuroscience provide insights into how disorders such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Anorexia involve a dynamic interplay between neuro-developmental and social factors.  Crucially, such injury and/or illness can, in the long term, result in the compromising of key neurological functions – in particular the capacity to consider complex decisions relating to one’s own welfare and real engagement in society.  Those advances in neuroscience provide a unique opportunity to address important legal and societal problems relating to psychological conditions.  Research carried out with prison populations indicates that untreated childhood brain injury is a factor in predisposing an individual to violent crime in adulthood (Leon-Carrion & Ramos, 2003) – however, children who receive adequate treatment at an early stage in their development may deal more successfully with social integration at a later stage and therefore avoid offending/reoffending (Tonks et al, 2009).  At the same time, such advances in the field of childhood neuro-developmental disabilities present clinicians, researchers and lawmakers with major challenges.  Western legal systems and, in particular, international human rights law are based on the concepts of free will and personal autonomy, however the understanding of the key notions which make up the principle of personal autonomy (conscious decision-making powers, choice, capacity and consent) differs considerably across disciplines, languages and legal societies.  It is largely for this reason that the Council of Europe has yet to issue an Additional protocol on mental health.  Such a task is also particularly challenging within the EU where the laws are diverse, multi-layered and multilingual.  My research interest in this area surrounds the problems which exist at the supranational (EU) level in terms of philosophical and jurisprudential disparities reflected in the linguistic differences affecting the law formation process at that level.  Addressing such problems involves consideration not only of what concepts such as consent, capacity and autonomy may mean in different contexts, but also the mechanics of how laws are shaped by compromises between language codes etc.