Sumantra Chattarji knows more than a thing or two about the brain. He is among the few neuroscientists in India researching the effects of stressful experiences on the brain. In his sprawling laboratory in Bangalore’s National Centre for Biological Sciences – one of the country’s preeminent institutes – scientists are working on understanding what goes wrong in the brain in psychiatric and autism spectrum disorders.

As much as ever, the science is important. The debate on lowering the age of juvenile culpability in law while dealing with heinous crimes – like rape and murder – has pivoted on many arguments. Those who oppose a new bill point to the science. They say that studies (most from the West) have shown the brain is nowhere near fully developed by 16 to fully comprehend the consequences of all actions. It is therefore illogical to try a child as an adult, they add.

Chattarji is circumspect when he speaks about how his research can have implications for how we understand juvenile offenders. “I don’t advocate a hard line either way,” he said, after a quick rundown on the basic structure of the brain. “Science is one part, and the social reaction is another part. And you have to take the science and come up with a suitable social intervention.”

He is the head of the Centre for Brain Development and Repair at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and his lab has extrapolated its understanding of the human brain from rat models, where basic functioning of brains cells is essentially similar. “This gives us a mechanistic insight into brain functions and insights into potential therapies,” he said, while pointing out that social factors which cannot be measured in such experiments would also play a role.

Chattarji has tried to share his work with doctors to bridge the gap between research and practice. However, science and policy in India are barely interacting. “You cannot do policy in the absence of science and data,” he said. “The ability to provide rehabilitation for reversing compromised brain development requires serious social investment. It takes time, therapy, money and trained people.”

Consequences of actions

He concedes that despite knowing the science of the brain, his own reaction at one time was, how could a child commit such a dastardly crime like rape? He sympathised with the 2012 Delhi gang-rape victim’s parent who have expressed outraged at the release of the youngest convict after a three-year sentence in a remand home. He called their reaction “natural”. “Suppose you are the victim, I understand it is a response one cannot ignore,” he said. “But a dialogue has to happen, and that is not happening.”

What then is the science of brain development? The basic architecture of the brain is completed by the time a person is a teenager, but the frontal cortex – the part responsible for impulse control and decision making – reaches full maturity only by the time a person turns 21 or 22. “The rest of the brain can perform all adult actions,” said Chattarji, “except the area related to impulses.” This lateness in the full development of the frontal cortex could compromise judgement, and prevent young people from fully comprehending the consequences of their actions.

Chattarji has spent his career researching how stress causes dramatic consequences for brain development. “Even a few days of stress can cause the neurons in the pre-frontal cortex to shrink and crumble,” he said. Further, the amygdala – the part of the brain that modulates emotions – sees a proliferation of neural branches and synaptic connections. So as the decision making part of the brain deteriorates, the emotional part gets disproportionately strengthened. External triggers can result in emotionally driven, rather than rationally determined behaviour.

“You are the product of your genetics and the environment,” said Chattarji. “Family history, childhood abuse, poverty, deprivation – all these things can compromise brain development.”

Answer is rehabilitation

National Crime Record Bureau statistics paint precisely this picture. Of the total juvenile offences recorded in the year 2014, 55.6% were of children from families with an annual income of less than Rs 25,000. Further, 53% were illiterate or had studied only till Class V. As the numbers show, there is a clear correlation between background and social conditions and actions.

However, intervention has shown that this can be reversed to put the brain back on the path towards positive development with the right set of interventions. “Damage takes time, and reversal also takes time,” said Chattarji. “But it is possible."

How is this possible? It is because of what is referred to as the brain’s “plasticity”. The younger the brain is, the more plastic it is, meaning it becomes more receptive and easier to mould. This is precisely what activists objecting to the lowering of juvenile culpability argue – young minds might be more vulnerable to peer pressure and poor choices, but equally to reformation.

“The real answer then is rehabilitation,” said Chattarji.

But not the kind currently available in overcrowded juvenile homes, with understaffed counsellors and experts and poor facilities.

Chattarji describes juvenile crime as an epidemiological problem, with the number of “high risk individuals” in urban India, as young men wrenched from their social contexts move to big cities to work, like in the case of the juvenile convict. “It is a large-scale problem requiring a concerted effort to integrate science and society into a comprehensive policy,” he said. “Science alone cannot do anything unless it informs reform and rehabilitation.”