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REF 2021 - Research Excellence Framework

Advances in the Neuroscience of Trauma & Crime: Transforming justice globally for vulnerable people in custody

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Professor Huw Williams’ team found a high prevalence rate of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in young children and adolescents and showed that younger brains are more vulnerable than older brains to the effects of repeated concussive blows, particularly problems in impulse control and attention.

They also showed if brain injury occurred during childhood it can lead to problems with social communication and mood, as well as poor empathy – potentially increasing the risk of criminal activities.

Having established various forms of TBI can lead to social problems in the long term, the team examined the prevalence of TBI in offenders and if it had any impact on crime patterns. In a retrospective cohort study with adult prisoners, 17 percent had suffered moderate to severe TBI and more than 50 percent had mild TBI. They also discovered over 45 percent of juveniles in custody had suffered a loss of consciousness due to a traumatic brain injury, five times higher than the general population.

Research in Exeter has led to policy changes nationally and internationally.

It has changed the sentencing and rehabilitation guidelines for minors. The team have directly influenced a radical re-structuring of youth secure systems, moving away from incarceration and towards the adoption of care and rehabilitation. Now, all people under 18 in custody in England and Wales are assessed for traumatic brain injuries and neuro-disabilities.

This change has shown an improved integration of healthcare and rehabilitation in prisons leading to a better environment for rehabilitation.

Professor Williams research has also meant that changes have been made to sentencing and rehabilitation guidelines for young adults and adults. A traumatic brain injury is now taken into account, with screening and support workers available and staff trained to identify and support brain injury issues.

The research has also impacted policy involving the youth justice system in New Zealand and the prison system in France.

The UN appointed Professor Huw Williams to advise new guidelines for judges worldwide to account for developmental maturity and traumatic brain injury. This created a shift away from blaming “bad personality” for criminality and moved toward understanding how brain injury and trauma contribute to crime and needs to be addressed to reduce future crimes. Thanks to the work of Prof Williams, a review of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Justice settings concluded that children with Neuro-disability should have their needs met whilst detained and also not be made at risk of being imprisoned in the first place.

The research in Exeter has helped to redefine the way that the justice system in the UK and across the world treats children and young adults with traumatic brain injuries – moving from a system that punishes, to one which attempts to support and rehabilitate.

Professor Huw Williams talks about his research into rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries.

Meet our researchers

Headshot of Dr Huw Williams

Professor Huw Williams

Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology 


Huw Williams is a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research (CCNR) at Exeter University. Current projects include: Neuro-Trauma in adolescents and young adults in society and in prisons (Cape Town (South Africa) and London); Traumatic Brain Injury and Neuro Disability Screening & Support in Prisons (with Do-It Profiler); processing of emotions after brain injury; Neuroimaging of Sports Concussion in Elite athletes; how to use Neuroscience to influence public policy and tax spending; Post-Concussion Syndrome in sports populations; Neuroimaging of Affective Systems underlying Personality; Anorexia and Eating Disorders in UK and India; Injury & stress in Police Officers.

He has published papers and books and held grants in a range of areas of Clinical Neuropsychology – particularly on neuro-rehabilitation and recently regarding crime.

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