Recent Findings in Neurophysiology: Implications for Forensic Evaluations

Kathleen M. Heide, University of South Florida
Eldra P. Solomon, Center for Mental Health Education,

ABSTRACT
Many victims and offenders in the mental health and criminal justice systems are trauma survivors. Some have been victimized from early childhood, often by neglect and abuse by caretakers. Many sequelae of childhood maltreatment have been documented including substance abuse, difficulty relating to other people, and high risk for continued victimization. Recent research findings link psychological with long term neurophysiological changes involving the brain and endocrine system. These changes affect cognitive, physiological and affective function leading to a constellation of problems referred to as complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When confronted with stressful situations, individuals with complex PTSD have difficulty accessing higher cortical centers, areas of the brain essential for formulating appropriate decisions. Instead, their responses are driven by limbic and brain stem activity, often resulting in socially inappropriate behavior. This primitive response mode results in a variety of problems including difficulty in regulation of affective impulses and inappropriate expression of anger. The authors review these findings and propose that in the process of "Re-inventing Justice," consideration should be given to those individuals who suffer from complex PTSD. The authors discuss implications for forensic evaluations, including competency evaluations, mental status at the time of the offense, and factors in mitigation.

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Updated 05/20/2006