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Hastings Law Journal

Authors

Beatriz Luna

Abstract

The overreaching aim of this Article is to describe how developmental cognitive neuroscience can inform juvenile law. Fundamental to culpability and responsibility is the ability to effectively execute voluntary executive behavior. Executive function, including cognitive control and working memory, has a protracted development with key aspects continuing to mature through adolescence. These limitations in executive control are due in great part to still maturing brain processes. Gray and white matter changes are still becoming established in adolescence, enhancing efficiency and the speed of brain processing supporting executive control. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that underlies reward processing and learning, peaks in adolescence—supporting known increases in sensation seeking but also in adaptable learning. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (“fMRI”) studies show that adolescent limitations in recruiting brain systems that support response planning, error processing, the ability to sustain an executive state, and top-down prefrontal executive control of behavior underlie limitations in executive control in adolescence. Moreover, adolescents show over-reactivity to reward incentives, thus engaging response systems that may contribute to impulsive responses in situations with high motivation. Neurobiological evidence indicating that adolescence is a transitional stage of limited executive control in the context of increased vulnerability to sensation seeking can inform culpability, long-term sentencing, and greater amenability for rehabilitation. Finally, it is important to note that executive control, while limited in its efficiency, is available in adolescence, and given time to deliberate with guidance from mature adults, adolescents can make responsible decisions.

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