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Tag Archives: paediatric neuroscience

The sky is falling, the sky is falling – balance, and yes, more neuroscience

A lot of television and radio shows, particularly news or discussion shows, approach things on the principle of balance. You’ve got to show both sides of the debate and give them equal air-time.

So you get expert number one, Chicken Little, come on and say “The sky is falling, the sky is falling”

Expert number two, puts the counter position “The sky isn’t falling, the principles of gravity don’t work that way, and in the unlikely even that the sky was ever to fall, here would be some catastrophic signs and evidence that we would get”

And then the presenter wraps up, often with the expression “Well, the controversy rages on”

So the listener/viewer doesn’t learn much more than that some people think the sky is falling, others think it isn’t.  Some people think that Evolution is a load of nonsense and that the existence of bananas prove that*, others think it isn’t.  Some people think that the Holocaust is a fake Jewish conspiracy and it never happened, some people don’t. Some people think we should intervene militarily in Syria, some people think we shouldn’t.

[*Re – Bananas disprove evolution. I am not kidding, this is actually an argument]

The overwhelming message is that there are two sides to every story, there are no right or wrong answers.

What we don’t get is any analysis of whether Chicken Little is someone to be relied upon, or whether a detailed look at Chicken Little’s claims mean that almost anyone with an informed view would disagree.

And so you end up with Chicken Little’s views being just as much air time and weight as the counter-opinion, in order to have ‘balance’

I’m all for balanced debate when the issues are balanced – you can learn a hell of a lot from listening to people who have a contrary view. But it is helpful to know whether the debate is actually balanced (the Syria thing there are genuinely good and awful points on both sides, and though I might have views I wouldn’t say that the other camp is wholly wrong) or whether frankly one side is just wrong (The Holocaust really did happen, Evolution is not nonsense, the sky is not falling)

Long-term readers of the blog may well be aware that the Family Justice Board published some research on the neuroscience behind neglect – it’s all available and discussed here:-

And then Wastell and White published a critique of that research, essentially saying that it is being misused to make political decisions and justify a direction of travel that the individual studies simply don’t support

In very brief summary (the two articles tell you much much more, as do the source papers cited within them), there are two camps on what the neuroscience says. The FJB camp says that the neuroscience shows that there is hard evidence that neglect is very damaging to the underlying structure of children’s brains and that this neglect is difficult or not possible to recover from and that timely intervention and stopping the neglect early is thus vital. The Wastell/White camp say that the scientific evidence for these assertions is simply not there, that the studies the FJB camp rely on are either irrelevant or have been wildly overstated and that in particular, there is neuroscientific evidence that brains are more ‘plastic’ than the FJB camp claim – i.e that where damage occurs, the brain recovers and repairs that damage.

I candidly said in the second piece that not being a neuroscientist, I have no idea whether Wastell and White are correct in their demolition of the FJB research, or whether they are wrong.

I don’t know who “Chicken Little” is in this scenario, or whether either of the camps are “Chicken Little”, but that given that the FJB research has been an important underpinning “child-focussed” reason for the drive towards faster intervention and faster resolution of care proceedings, it is rather important that people who ARE in a position to say :-

(a)   The FJB camp are right

(b)   Wastell and White are right

(c)   One of them is probably more right than the other, but there are some real gray areas that need more studies and better evidence to be confident about deciding the issues

Are asked to say so.

If we are going to make policy decisions, or case decisions, we really do need to know if there is genuine doubt here and the extent to which that doubt impacts on how confident one can be about the research, or if one of the camps is a Chicken Little.      [For what it is worth, I really don’t believe that Wastell and White are Chicken-Littling here.  But I am no neuroscientist]

What I learn recently is that whilst the judiciary were all of course sent the FJB research (on the basis that finally, the Courts were going to be given some research on which decisions could safely and properly be taken)

they have now also been sent, without comment, the counter critique of Wastell and White.

Specifically, they were sent THIS document, which was produced for a conference organised by counsels chambers, 14 Grays Inn. As what I am doing here is linking to their website featuring it, and naming that 14 Grays Inn produced it and Wastell and White authored it, I don’t believe I am treading on anyone’s toes re authorship or copyright (but will take down the link if people object)

I think it is pretty important that people who are arguing cases in front of Judges know what research material the Court has been sent, and it may help to know that all Judges have been provided with access to both the FJB research AND this paper from 14 Grays Inn which critiques it.

What of course they DO NOT have, is any objective independent peer review of both documents, to answer the questions I have set out before. Which effectively makes the research fairly useless. We are left with the stereotypical TV presenter summary of “well, the controversy rages on”

I wonder if the same is going to be true once the FJB publish their research on the level of contact which is desirable for children (yes, it will), or the impact of drug misuse on family life and the ability of parents to recover from drug misuse (yes, probably)  and whether if all the Judges are getting are a set of controversial research papers and effectively being told that the science is controversial on all these issues, whether there is any value to it at all?

I was very supportive of the FJB producing some framework research which would answer some vital underpinning questions in child protection, but it seems to me that this has value only if the Courts who are potentially relying on that research have clear understanding of whether that research represents accurately the mainstream thinking of professionals within that field, and where any gaps are that  result in the need to be more cautious about certain aspects.

[The 14 Grays Inn paper is worth reading in any event, and I would urge you to do so, if you can find the time. A lot of the neuroscience is similar to already linked to on my earlier two blogs, but there is some new stuff. The “Error at the Door” piece about initial assessment is really very good]

Neurology, new neurology, old neurology, neurotic neurology… let’s have a heated debate!

Am beginning to think that I should move into the new field of paediatric neurology law blogging, as it seemed very popular last time.   [Although I am going to have to work harder on titles if I have to do a fourth, because I’m running dry]

This is my third post on this issue.

The last one was here:-


Which was about the Wastell and White report suggesting that too much political weight is being placed on headlines of neuroscience research when the actual research is more fragile than the headlines would suggest.

You may recall that the thrust of that was whether the impression that is being disseminated that neuroscience is at one on the principle that neglect in early childhood can cause longstanding harm to children, possibly even irreparable harm in the first years of life, is a genuine one on which important decisions can rightly be taken, or whether there is a schism within neuroscience which might need resolution before we start constructing metaphorical housing estates on those foundations.

The key debate seems to be about plasticity of the brain in an infant – is that damage long-lasting and irreparable, or does the brain form new structures and overcome it (obviously ideally with the neglect ceasing and positive parenting being in place) ?

I don’t think anyone would argue that children suffering neglect is BAD, the issue here is whether science is now showing that it is FAR MORE BAD than we had previously believed. 

As a result, a kind subscriber has sent me this new report “The Foundations of Life” compiled by Harvard University, which is firmly in the Family Justice Review camp, of neglect causing much greater and more irreparable harm than had earlier been understood.

My initial reading suggests that this is not new research, or commenting on fresh experiments or studies, but again a drawing together of existing research and formulating conclusions from it.

That report can be found here: –

There is a summary of essential findings, which I shall set out here.

(The analysis of whether those findings are made out from the research is a task beyond me, but some of my new readers who have lovely neurosciency brains will probably set to work on considering that).

Advances in molecular biology, and genomics have converged on three compelling conclusions:

Early experiences are built into our bodies.

Significant adversity can produce physiological disruptions or biological “memories” that undermine the development of the body’s stress response systems and affect the developing brain, cardiovascular system, immune system, and metabolic regulatory controls.

These physiological disruptions can persist far into adulthood and lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health.

Messages for Decision-Makers

The biological sciences have two clear and powerful messages for leaders who are searching for more effective ways to improve the health of the nation.

First, current health promotion and disease prevention policies focused on adults would be more effective if evidence-based investments were also made to strengthen the foundations of health in the prenatal and early childhood periods.

Second, significant reductions in chronic disease could be achieved across the life course by decreasing the number and severity of adverse experiences that threaten the wellbeing of young children and by strengthening the protective relationships that help mitigate the harmful effects of toxic stress.

A New Framework for Early Childhood Policy and Practice

The following four interrelated dimensions offer a promising framework for innovative approaches to improving physical and mental well-being. The biology of health explains how experiences and environmental influences “get under the skin” and interact with genetic predispositions, which then result in various combinations of physiological adaptation and disruption that affect lifelong outcomes in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental well-being.

These findings call for us to augment adult-focused approaches to health promotion and disease prevention by addressing the early childhood origins of lifelong illness and disability.

From the report itself, this is interesting – the suggestion that child abuse should start being treated as a public health issue, and treatment programmes designed and delivered.

Child Welfare.

For more than a century, child protective services have focused on issues re¬lated to physical safety, reduction of repeated injury, and child custody.

Now, recent scientific advances are increasing our understanding of the extent to which the toxic stress of abuse, neglect, or exposure to family or community violence can produce physiological changes in young children that increase the likelihood of mental health problems and physical disease throughout their lives.

Based on this heightened risk of stress-related illness, science suggests that all investigations of suspected child abuse or neglect should include a comprehensive assessment of the child’s cognitive, language, emo¬tional, social, and physical development, followed by the provision of effective therapeutic services as needed. This could be accomplished through regularized referrals from the child welfare system (which is a mandated service in each state) to the early intervention system for children with developmental delays or dis¬abilities (which provides services under an en¬titlement established by federal law).

Although the most recent federal reauthorizations of the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act both included requirements for establishing such linkages, sufficient funding has not been provided, and the implementation of these requirements has moved slowly.

The availability of new, evidence-based interventions that have been shown to improve outcomes for children in the child welfare system168 underscores the compelling need to transform “child protection” from its traditional concern with physical safety and custody to a broader, more science-based focus on health promotion and disease prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken an important step in advancing this issue by promoting the prevention of child maltreatment as a public health concern.169,170

I remain in the dark as to whether the current path we are on, of policy decisions being taken, and perhaps individual ones too, on the basis of neglect being irreparably harmful to infants and that our timeframe for making decisions is much more narrow than previously believed, is the right one and that we have some mavericks suggesting otherwise, or whether the current trendy thinking on that is wrong and the naysayers are actually pointing out that this emperor has no clothes on.

I would like someone to find out. Or perhaps we lawyers just have an over-optimistic view of the social sciences, and think that there is a definitive answer out there to be found out (like there really is a definite number for the co-efficient of the expansion of brass and that every scientist in the field would agree on what the number is, and how you could prove it). Maybe there isn’t.

Perhaps the truth of the world of neuroscience is that we are still stumbling in the dark and that every theory is going to have its proponents and opponents.

In which case, we perhaps ought to know THAT, and not be treating the findings and theories of neuroscience as though they represent the final word on any given subject.