Date of this Version
Court Review, Volume 50, Issue 2 (2014)
The science of adolescent brain development is making its way into the national conversation. As an early researcher in the field, I regularly receive calls from journalists asking how the science of adolescent brain development should affect the way society treats teenagers. I have been asked whether this science justifies raising the driving age, outlawing the solitary confinement of incarcerated juveniles, excluding 18-year-olds from the military, or prohibiting 16-year-olds from serving as lifeguards on the Jersey Shore. Explicit reference to the neuroscience of adolescence is slowly creeping into legal and policy discussions as well as popular culture. The U.S. Supreme Court discussed adolescent brain science during oral arguments in Roper v. Simmons,1 which abolished the juvenile death penalty, and cited the field in its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida,2 which prohibited the sentencing of juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide to life without parole.
There is now incontrovertible evidence that adolescence is a period of significant changes in brain structure and function. Although most of this work has appeared just in the past 15 years, there is already strong consensus among developmental neuroscientists about the nature of these changes. And the most important conclusion to emerge from recent research is that important changes in brain anatomy and activity take place far longer into development than had been previously thought. Reasonable people may disagree about what these findings may mean as society decides how to treat young people, but there is little room for disagreement about the fact that adolescence is a period of substantial brain maturation with respect to both structure and function.