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Dr. Mona Sobhani

mona sobhani Dr. Mona Sobhani
Law and Neuroscience Post-doctoral Research Fellow
Vanderbilt Profile

Mona Sobhani first became interested in the biology of human behavior through an introductory psychology class in high school. She recalls being particularly intrigued by the textbook chapter on the brain, which piqued her interest in how various parts of the brain related to various human behaviors. Sobhani entered the University of California, San Diego, aiming at medical school, but her interest in the biological bases of human behavior soon led her to change her major to neuroscience, a field that allowed her to combine her early interest in biology with her interest in human behavior. “I was also interested in higher level social interactions involving politics and government, so I took a lot of political science classes on topics ranging from international terrorism and diplomacy to Middle Eastern government and politics,” she said.

Before beginning work on her Ph.D., Sobhani seriously considered law school. “In law school, I could examine human behavior at a societal level, and in graduate school, I could explore the neural underpinnings of social cognition,” she said. “Ultimately, I was drawn to the study of cognitive neuroscience.”

As a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, Sobhani used MRI scanners to study human brain function and structure and discovered a growing interest in the personality disorder of psychopathy. “I was especially intrigued with the moral and legal implications of recent neuroscientific work on the disorder implicating deficits in emotion and behavioral control related neural circuits,” she said. Her graduate research investigated the neural correlates of psychopathic traits in a community sample, with a special emphasis on investigating the role of anxiety in aiding identification of psychopathic subtypes. “One reason this topic was so interesting to me is that the study of psychopathy is an excellent example of how scientific research can impact legal decisions, as psychopathy tests are often taken into consideration, and sometimes granted much weight, in parole decisions,” she said.

Sobhani learned, while pursuing her doctorate, that the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience was headquartered at Vanderbilt Law School. “To me, neurolaw seemed like the perfect combination of societal impact of scientific work,” she said. “I followed the work of the research network by attending mini-conferences on the topic and reading publications that flowed from the project.” She also founded a journal club at USC with a law student—and fellow neuroscientist—Chao Qi, to discuss issues at the intersection of law and neuroscience. That led her to join USC’s Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, where she worked with Elyn Saks to research various methods the U.S. legal system uses to deal with mentally ill offenders.  “My work drew a comparison between treatment of juveniles in the justice system, which is based on psychological and neuroscientific findings, with that of mentally ill adult offenders,” she explained. “I argued for a specialized system to address the unique needs of mentally ill adults.”

Sobhani joined Vanderbilt Law School as a postdoctoral scholar in fall 2013. “As neuroscience is a relatively new field, the implications of findings are only just beginning to be explored,” she said. “I’m interested in the implications the findings have for the current legal system, as well as the ethical issues that arise at the intersection of neuroscience and law—and I’m happy to be a part of the research team at Vanderbilt University.”

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