The recent passage in Parliament of the amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, which now allows minors who are 16 years of age to be tried as adults if they commit heinous crimes such as rape and murder, has elicited mixed, and often polarised, views on what should be done with young people who commit crimes and who come into conflict with the law. There is another, perhaps even more germane puzzle which should precede that one: Are young people between the age of 16 and 18 adults, i.e. the finished article, or are they a somewhat different animal, albeit similar in appearance?

This article will neatly sidestep both those very germane conundrums in favour of a third one simply because it has not been debated as widely, and perhaps, even less wisely: Does stress during critical periods of brain development alter the brain in significant ways, thereby changing critical developmental pathways and leaving adolescents who experience such stress (for truly, they are emphatically not young adults) at a developmental disadvantage when it comes to navigating the numerous pitfalls that living in society throws onto their paths? To comprehend the answer, perhaps we should ignore this long-winded question for now and cover some basic facts that will lead us toward a better understanding of the underlying science.

Fact 1: The brain continues to evolve, well past the legal definition of adulthood.
To illustrate this point, we can see that by around 6 years of age, while gross brain volume reaches almost 90% of its eventual volume in adulthood, connectivity in the brain undergoes radical changes during the teenage years in a process called “pruning”. This is a process by which the brain preferentially strengthens the connections between those pathways that regulate behaviours that seem to be beneficial in terms of adaptation to the physical, psychological and social environment that the individual happens to be in. On the opposite side of the coin, behaviours that seem to be less salutary have their connectivity dampened, resulting in the organism performing those acts less over time. The changes in brain connectivity occur due to a reorganisation of nerve synapses (connections between nerves) and a process affecting the nerve axons, the white matter of the brain, called myelination. Myelination can increase the speed of relay over a network of neurons by over a hundredfold, transforming the infrastructure of the brain by turning these functional but hitherto sluggish networks into informational superhighways. These changes constitute two of the key features of brain maturity.

Fact 2: The part of the brain that is a crucial component in impulse regulation and critical thinking, among other higher order functions, starts to develop relatively later in the trajectory of brain development.
What does this mean? Essentially, the ability to regulate impulsive behaviours (acts which tend to be done without thinking about the consequences) is implemented by the prefrontal cortex, which starts to mature later than the rest of the brain. This maturation process continues to progress much after the period during which the physical changes of puberty have already been established. Keep in mind that other brain systems that initiate our more instinctive, but not always more adaptive, behavioural responses have already leaped ahead in terms of both their structure and connectivity by then. In fact, the process of myelination that we referred to earlier continues through nascent adulthood into older ages, with ongoing maturational white matter and grey matter changes in the frontal cortex having been recorded even up till the age of 30. Even by the age of 18, it seems our brains aren’t the finished articles we’d like them to be just yet. It seems, rather, that they still have miles to go before they sleep, even if the woods ahead aren’t particularly lovely, poorly lit and unfathomably deep.

Fact 3: Stress can affect brain development and it occurs in multiple forms.
The definition of stress that we’ll use is “a condition that seriously perturbs the physiological and psychological balance of an individual”. Some of the most common forms of stressors include:

  • environmental stressors, such as poverty and nutritional deprivation.
  • psychosocial stressors: a useful term to delineate the complexly interlinked relationship between psychological stresses (which could vary from minor hassles to physical and sexual abuse) and social stressors (which vary from parental conflict to both natural and man-made disasters).
  • environmental toxins, such as lead and heavy metals, which can affect dimensions such as severity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms even in doses that do not cause the more severe forms of toxicity.

Stress mediates its effect on individuals primarily by activating the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal or HPA axis – the body’s innate stress response system. Increased HPA axis activity alters, in turn, an organism’s hormonal and neurological responses in order to develop more adaptive ways of tackling the stressor. Stress can cause a delay in myelination, putting off some of the changes in connectivity that help the impulse regulation system work faster. If the stress remains over a longer period of time (chronic stress), this creates permanent changes in the physiological systems of the individual, leading to new set-points for critical brain processes. These new levels of brain activity persist even when the stress they were meant to respond to is over. To picture this, imagine setting a thermostat to a higher temperature during winter, and subsequently forgetting to set it back to lower temperatures during summer. This process of changing the baseline activity of various systems is called allostasis to differentiate it from the term homeostasis, which broadly means trying to maintain the same pre-existing set-points for various functions in the face of stress.

Fact 4: The periods during which stress can alter brain development extends from the prenatal period through childhood and into adolescence.
The effects of maternal nutritional deprivation during pregnancy, in the Dutch famine cohort study for example, have been found to have long-term effects on the risk of developing metabolic syndromes in the children born to those mothers. It’s interesting that certain periods seem more important than others. Coming back to the Dutch study, exposure to nutritional deprivation had a far greater effect when it occurred in the early months of pregnancy as compared to when it happened in the later months.

Fact 5: Chronic stress effects long-term changes on physical and brain development, which persist beyond the duration of the stress.
This long-term risk also exists for developing symptoms of anxiety and depression, impulse dysregulation and even substance abuse disorders. Abuse experiences during childhood can have cumulative effects on the development of adult mental health disorders. Hence, stress occurring during certain critical developmental periods can have effects on future adolescent and adult health, even when the stress is long over.

This knowledge of brain development throws new significance on a few statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau report on Crimes in India, 2013. A large number of those juveniles who had committed crimes or 50.2% belonged to families whose annual income was less than Rs25,000. If we include juveniles from those families whose annual income was less than Rs 50,000 (a monthly income of Rs 4166.7), then the group accounts for 77.5% of those in conflict with the law. Nearly 20% of those arrested were illiterate and 32.24% were educated only up till the primary level.

The socio-economic disadvantages faced by these groups of juveniles expose them to a number of risks, nutritional and otherwise, which are poised to have a significant effect on the trajectory of brain development. It would be both futile and short-sighted to ignore the fact that a large number of these children and adolescents are exposed to a set of stresses significant enough to delay their ability to regulate impulsive decision-making, along with other key frontal brain functions. Physical maturity does not go hand in hand with brain maturity, and so reducing the age at which we legally recognise that a child is still a developing individual is a refusal of society to acknowledge science. All law has tried to balance philosophical ideals with the practical realities of implementation. Rolling back the progressive changes enshrined in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, in favour of a more punitive law may play well to our angst about the society we seem to be building, but it is a flagrant rejection of 21st century science. It is also a blatant denial of the burdens that we, as a nation, have been unable to help our most vulnerable members carry. We seem to have already answered all three of the issues we raised in the first paragraph of this article. It’s so much easier to ignore inconvenient truths until the cost of doing so is due, but that cost will be borne by our children. So here are two more questions to think about before we embark on our new, desperately questionable, phase to alter the futures of many young people in need of reformation,

  • Is exposing adolescents – and they are most emphatically not adults but adolescents – to the incredible stresses of developing in an adult jail a step towards reformation or retribution?
  • With protective measures seemingly an afterthought to more punitive measures, are we missing the woods for the trees?

The authors work under the Department of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bengaluru. Dr Deepak Jayarajan is assistant professor of psychiatry, Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, while Dr Prabhat K Chand is an additional professor of Psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction Medicine.