Psychoanalysis

Animals, Like Humans, Experience Altered Neuroplasticity in Impoverished Environment – VI

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Prolonged solitary confinement alters behaviour patterns in animals. Michael Zigmond noted that the rats and mice that he studies have 99 percent of the same genes as humans and that the basic neuroanatomy of the mouse parallels that of humans, points out Prof. Ashoka, in the sixth and final part of his research paper. An eye-opener, exclusively for Different Truths.

A large body of animal studies strongly supports the notion of altered neuroplasticity as a result of an impoverished environment. In a Canadian case, challenging prolonged solitary confinement in British Columbia, the lawyers sought to introduce an expert report from neurologist and animal behaviour scholar Michael Zigmond, who noted that the rats and mice that he studies have 99 percent of the same genes as humans and that the basic neuroanatomy of the mouse parallels that of humans. Zigmond reports that his and other studies demonstrate that when mice and rats are randomly grouped into two different environments, one that is enriched with lots of activities and another that is isolated, the rodents in the isolated environment show “enormous differences,” such as a “decrease in the anatomical complexity of the brain (including fewer connections between nerve cells and even fewer nerve cells) and a decrease in the number of blood vessels in the brain.” These animals also show differences in learning and memory, as well as susceptibility to a range of diseases that emulate human diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and strokes.

Zigmond has reported that isolation de-creases the synthesis of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is critical for motor function and reward, and the capacity to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.

A key neurotrophic factor is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which modulates diverse functions including learning, memory, navigation, and mood. Similarly, Zigmond has reported that isolation de-creases the synthesis of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is critical for motor function and reward, and the capacity to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.

One would think it self-evident from a purely ethical perspective that placing a person in a small cell for twenty-three hours a day with very limited or no social contact for years, and sometimes for decades, should not be permitted in civilised society. However, the law requires evidence that such treatment would cause serious harm, and it is in this domain that neuroscience can play an important role in the legal struggle against prolonged solitary confinement. As discussed above, neuroscience is potentially relevant not just to this but to a wide range of other legal issues because an underappreciated and often overlooked contribution that neuroscience can bring to the law is to break down the division that currently exists between physiological and psychological harm and between physical and mental injury. Neuroscience challenges the law’s long-unchallenged assumption that most mental suffering is inescapably subjective. Proceeding from the obvious truth that the brain is a physical organ, neuroscience can show empirically and explain theoretically that the brain both regulates and is profoundly affected by mental harm and suffering.

Science teaches us that, on occasion, what seem to be obvious truths are incorrect. An example is the widely held belief that children are intrinsically resilient, that they will not remember early life trauma, that they will simply not encode the stress, or that they will readily forget it.

As the interface between neuroscience and the law evolves, several challenges are likely to emerge. While we have underscored the value of neuroscience in providing scientific support for common sense notions, there will likely be situations in which the opposite happens. Science teaches us that, on occasion, what seem to be obvious truths are incorrect. An example is the widely held belief that children are intrinsically resilient, that they will not remember early life trauma, that they will simply not encode the stress, or that they will readily forget it. However, neurobiological evidence clearly shows that early-life traumatic events, especially if repeated, can produce a lasting deleterious effect on the individual that will manifest later in life. Societal views, as well as legal thought, will likely need to be modified to incorporate such in-sights.

Moreover, when neuroscience accords with common sense, it may nonetheless provide novel perspectives that may be impactful on legal decisions and legal thought. For example, neuroscience has validated the importance of so-called critical periods during human development when major epigenetic, cellular, and molecular reprogramming can take place in response to environmental conditions, but it has also shown that such key periods are not confined to early childhood. One key period occurs during adolescence. As additional biological evidence accumulates, it will be important for the law to contemplate the implications of such a major biological upheaval, both in understanding human behaviour and in dealing with it from a legal standpoint.

For example, as described above, stress remodels the brain. Some level of remodelling is adaptive and enables coping with further stress, but chronic or severe stress becomes maladaptive, leading to neural damage.

Another major challenge stems from the fact that neurobiological changes are rarely binary. Rather, they are incremental, reflecting processes that may wax and wane, and the threshold at which a change becomes deleterious can be difficult to discern. For example, as described above, stress remodels the brain. Some level of remodelling is adaptive and enables coping with further stress, but chronic or severe stress becomes maladaptive, leading to neural damage. However, the point at which a change is likely to be damaging rather than helpful is unclear and varies as a function of the pre-existing vulnerability or resilience of any given individual. Moreover, as tools and techniques in neuroscience evolve, our ability to detect changes will improve.

The existence of these continua is not readily compatible with legal formalisms that may classify matters in more binary ways. An example is the notion of competency. As neuroscientists develop more robust biomarkers of cognitive function, it may be possible to detect loss of competency in some functions (such as recall of recent events) coexisting with maintenance of competency in other brain functions (such as recall of distant events or moral judgment). This may push legal thought toward a more nuanced definition of competency or facets thereof, in-formed by scientific knowledge.

Our thinking about the ethical, philosophical, and legal implications that arise from the explosion in neuroscience knowledge is in its infancy.

Our thinking about the ethical, philosophical, and legal implications that arise from the explosion in neuroscience knowledge is in its infancy. It is clear, however, that ongoing discourse between the disciplines will profit both the science and the law, framing questions in interesting ways for the neuroscientist and challenging legal professionals to amend old or develop new conceptual frameworks.

(Concluded)

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