In recognition of her remarkable scholarship and innovative research, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society has awarded Casey the 2022 George A. Miller Prize, which recognizes scholars at the cutting-edge of their discipline. The prize is one of several Casey has brought home in recent years, some of which are noted as “Lifetime Achievement” awards.
When asked what she thinks about these many accolades, she chuckles and says, “I think, ‘Wow, I must be getting old!’” But in fact, Casey is in the middle of a thriving career — which took off after graduating from the University of South Carolina with her doctorate in psychology — with much still to do.
She has presented scientific findings before state supreme courts and policy makers around the country; her research aims to change how the world understands and treats mental health and behavioral health issues, particularly in young people.
“You get to a certain age where you feel that your research really has to make a difference. It needs to inform how we can improve and benefit society,” Casey says. “That’s why my research has moved in this direction – not only justice reform but mental health as well.”
Looking at the growing brain in action
In her current facility at Yale University, called the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain (FAB) lab, Casey studies changes in the brain during adolescence, examining evidence that teens and young adults are “qualitatively different” from children and older adults.
Casey was one of the first scientists to use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to examine typical brain development in children. The technology allowed Casey to see not only the structure of the brain, but how it functions when a person performs a task and how that changes in a person over time. Casey began following the brain changes that took place as children grew into adolescents and adults.
Part of what inspired Casey to focus on this age group was seeing her own child go through adolescence and recognizing that his way of navigating the world and understanding himself had changed.
“The purpose of adolescence is to learn how to become pro-social and to survive as an adult,” she says. “It requires testing rules. You no longer accept what people tell you; you want to experience it and learn for yourself. That can be beneficial, but it can also come with costs.”
Those costs are that adolescents tend to have more trouble with self-regulation and awareness. Certain brain developments make them more vulnerable to impulsive behavior and peer pressure — and can sometimes lead to criminal activity.
Turning research into real-world change
Casey learned about a legal case in which a young person named Kaleif Browder was held at Rikers Island for many years, without a trial, for a crime he allegedly committed at age 16. Although the case was dropped eventually, the psychological stress of prison and solitary confinement led Browder to take his own life at age 22.
This case stuck with Casey, who says she could imagine how her own child would respond if put in that situation. She put her research to work, informing the policies that determine how the justice system handles young people. She has presented scientific findings to courts, judges and parole boards and finds that policy makers are mostly receptive to the information.
Casey works as a faculty affiliate of Yale’s Justice Collaboratory. She’s also a part of the American Psychological Association Task Force to explore whether the death penalty should be more restricted. Roper V. Simmons, a Supreme Court ruling from 2005, blocks the death penalty from being used for individuals who were under 18 when their crimes were committed. Casey is looking at scientific data to see if the ruling should be extended to protect young adults below the age of 21.
Casey says such a ruling may be consistent with laws that set age 21 as a boundary for adult responsibilities, such as the widely applied legal drinking age. She says, “It’s difficult to tell the difference between an 18-year-old brain and a 17-year-old brain, and yet we still have the death penalty for crimes committed at 18, 19 and 20.”
Casey believes it’s important in this work to stick to the science. “We want the science to be objective, not subjective, and that’s also why we’re carefully reviewing the literature right now to write a brief that reflects the consensus of the scientific community on the evidence for significant late-adolescent development,” Casey says.
Passing on a dedication to impactful science
In addition to her work on policy reform, Casey is interested in precision medicine, which would allow individuals to receive mental health treatment that better aligns with their specific biological profile. She’s also closely following the work of her mentees as they examine the function of memory in adolescent development.
During her time at UofSC, Casey worked with Professor John Richards studying infant memory. Casey remembers Richards as an excellent mentor, who created opportunities for her to flourish at UofSC. Richards says he remembers Casey as one of the best in the program.
“She is well-regarded in the scientific community, attested to by numerous awards, science citation index rate, grants and students,” says Richards.
In July, Casey will move to Barnard College as the Christina Williams Professor of Neuroscience. Her ongoing research will continue in collaboration with Yale in her established FAB lab, and she says she looks forward to growing a new lab team at Barnard.
In working with students Casey tries to pass on something she learned from George A. Miller: “Your science is only as good as you can convey it. If you can’t convey your science, it’s not going to impact policy or impact people.”
“That’s what I always ask my mentees when they propose a research project,” she says. “‘How do you want to make a difference in the world?’ I think that’s an important question we should all ask ourselves.”
Banner photo courtesy BJ (Betty Jo) Casey (center), with FAB lab students at Yale University in early 2020.