NNL.20.004 – Prison Brain

Route: NeuroLabNL: the ultimate living lab for brain, cognition and behavioural research

Cluster question: 058 What are the patterns and causes of crime and how can we influence them?

What are patterns and causes of crime, and how can we influence them?
Our proposed research project aims to answer this NWA cluster question from a neuropsychological perspective. We hypothesize that one of the causes of crime (or more specifically, of criminal recidivism) may be the impoverished prison environment. Imprisonment is characterized by a sedentary lifestyle, lack of cognitive challenges, and it inherently leads to social isolation and increased stress. Such an impoverished and stressful environment may negatively influence brain structure and function, especially brain areas that are important for self-regulation. A reduction in self-regulation may increase the odds of criminal recidivism. In short, prison may (further) reduce brain function of prisoners, increasing the risk of criminal recidivism.
In our proposed research project, we make use of both neuroimaging and neuropsychological research techniques, to investigate the brain function of prisoners at the start of their imprisonment and to examine whether – and where, or in what functions – a decline in brain structure and function can be found during imprisonment. In parallel, we will investigate in a number of prisons in the Netherlands whether we can improve brain function and self-regulation in prisoners, by deploying several interventions aimed at enriching the prison environment. Even if the prisoner’s brain function does not decline in prison, an improvement in self-regulation could be beneficial to reduce the risk of criminal recidivism. To investigate whether we can truly influence these potential causes of crime, we will study the relationships between neuropsychological functioning and criminal recidivism 2 and 3 years later.
We have established a strong consortium with expert researchers from multiple universities and institutes, as well as relevant public parties such as the NIFP, WODC and DJI. With our consortium, we propose this ambitious, but feasible, multidisciplinary neuroscientific research project, that addresses pressing societal questions regarding potential causes of crime, and recidivism.


neuropsychology, neuroscience, prison, recidivism, self-regulation

Other organisations

Cognition and Behaviour;, Donders Institute for Brain, Nederlands Instituut voor Forensische Psychiatrie en Psychologie (NIFP), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum (WODC)


Organisation Utrecht University (UU)
Name Dr. J. (Jesse) Meijers
E-mail j.meijers@uu.nl
Website prisonbrain.com