The news that some of Britain's leading neuroscientists are to collaborate on a study of children's brains is bound to be treated warily in some quarters. Nor will the purpose of the research – to investigate whether early abuse and deprivation might cause changes in the brain that foster disturbed and violent behaviour in later life – reduce the worries. Examining the brain for physical characteristics that might help to explain aberrant behaviour of whatever kind conjures up a picture of fusty laboratories, rows of jars containing brains preserved in formaldehyde, and long-discredited theories about nature always trumping nurture.
Several aspects, however, make this study quite different and thoroughly to be welcomed. The first relates to its genesis. It has been commissioned by Camila Batmanghelidjh's charity, Kids Company, which is known for its innovative work with some of the most deprived children in the country. Its approach, tailored to individuals and painstakingly practical, is about as far from ideological dogma as it is possible to be. In the course of their work, Ms Batmanghelidjh and her team have noted patterns of behaviour that some children prone to violence had in common. If the research identifies some change in the brains of such children that is associated with violence or neglect in their past, then treatment would be a more rational and humane response than criminalisation; prevention might also become possible.
The second reason to applaud the project is the calibre of those who are taking part and the institutions concerned. There will be no risk of unscientific dogma intruding here. This will be a pioneering study with the potential to revolutionise the treatment of young offenders. And the third reason why this study should not be clouded by prejudices from the past is that neuroscience has progressed very far from the examination of pickled brains. While posthumous brain research still clearly has a place, today's scanning technology makes it possible to study the brain characteristics and responses of living people.
Some scientists object that the technology is still too crude for any useful conclusions to be reached. They also fear that too great an emphasis on neurology could encourage a diminution of personal responsibility for criminal acts. These are obviously dangers to be avoided. But if there is any way in which damaged children can somehow be mended, and today's neuroscience can help us find it, it would be a dereliction of duty to pass up the opportunity.