Can juvenile offenders “outgrow” their impulsivity? According to new research by Benjamin Shannon, instructor in radiology at the School of Medicine, that might be possible.
Shannon and colleagues interviewed incarcerated juveniles to gauge their impulsivity and scanned their brains to assess resting-state functional connectivity.
“We studied the spontaneous fluctuations in brain activity over time,” Shannon says. “Functional connectivity analysis looks for correlations in these fluctuations between different parts of the brain, which is a hint that these regions are communicating with each other.”
The researchers discovered that the areas of the brain involved in planning motor movements had different functional connectivity depending on how impulsive a person was. According to Shannon, in non-impulsive juveniles, and in typical young adults, these motor-planning regions correlate with a set of brain regions involved in executive control and attention. But in impulsive juveniles, the motor-planning regions correlate instead with the default-mode network, a set of regions associated with spontaneous, unconstrained thought.
To see how generalizable this finding was, Shannon and his team compared their results with an Oregon Health & Science University study involving functional connectivity scans on typical juveniles and young adults. This study showed that motor-planning functional connectivity patterns are more impulsive in young children than in adults.
“This suggests to us that brain connectivity associated with impulsivity in juvenile offenders is not some sort of fundamental miswiring of the brain, but rather a step along the normal developmental path,” Shannon says.
He and his team plan to conduct further research to determine whether or not it is possible to change the functional connectivity of the premotor cortex, thereby improving impulse control.
“Our results suggest that rehabilitation is possible — we don’t have to fix a ‘broken’ brain, we just have to nudge it back onto the typical developmental trajectory,” Shannon says.