Neuroscience and the Law

August 4, 2014

Recently, the most common neuroscience technology that has started to surface in court cases include the fMRI, or the functional magnetic resonance imaging. The fMRi works by collecting the data of brain flow in the brain when certain actions are carried out. A greater level of blood flow in one region indicates more activity, as more oxygenated blood is required to fuel the neurons to help them send out electrical signals.

A very controversial instance where the fMRI has been used was in the Brian Dugan case, where the defense argued that the 3 murders he conducted was because of his disease rather than when he was in his conscious, fully fit mind. They argued that the defendant should be free because it was not his fault that he had a disease.

In this case, the benefits of using the fMRI as evidence was that it allowed for an insight into the brain that could not have been previously seen by simply taking the stand. This allowed for the jury to understand the scientific aspect of the situation; it allowed them to see how the disorder was not the person acting in his conscious mind, that it was impulsive and a result of poor judgement due to the disease.

However, due to the immaturity of the use of the fMRI in court cases, lots of doubts and holes arise. The first one, in this case, was whether the fMRI scan taken 26 years after the murder was conducted allowed for an accurate image of how the brain of the accused was during the time of murder. There is no way of knowing that at this point, so the recent fMRI can only go as far as say that he was expressing signs of psychopathy now, but there is no way of telling if he was 26 years ago. Another major point against the use of fMRI is the idea of false positives, which was brought up in a study carried out on a dead salmon which showed signs of brain activity. This just goes to show that the data collected by the fMRI cannot be relied on by itself to act as evidence for a case. It can be supported by other data, but the fMRI is not enough to convict someone on its own.

At this point in time, the fMRI should not be admissible in court. There are too many questions that arise if the data is being used as defense. The jury is also likely to misinterpret the information, or not understand the data from the fMRI in context to the case, because they do not have previous knowledge of this technology. The first step towards making fMRI a part of court cases would be to educate people in general about the technology used for brain imagining such as the MRI, fMRI, EEG, etc. This allows them to not be biased toward or against this technology because they are not wowed by the idea of “cutting-edge” science.The fMRi would also have to develop in the aspect of accuracy and consistency to ensure that the data is reliable for use. There is still a way to go before the fMRI becomes more popular, but there is a great chance that it is going to end up being a vital part of court cases in the future.


August 4, 2014

Neuroscience technology has a great potential to change the way the court system works and how a jury reaches a verdict. Recently,  judges have increasingly let brain imaging into their courtroom to stand as evidence to argue that possible criminals are not morally responsible for their crimes because of the state of their brain (low activity in empathy, impulse, and decision-making regions). However, one must ask if such technology is advanced and accurate enough to be used in court, and if it can be taken advantage of by criminals to get away with their crimes. I believe that neuroscience technology should not be allowed in the court room until further improvements, except for a select handful of special cases where the technology could be accurate and not bias the jury.

In the past, polygraph tests were used to determine the guilt of a subject. However, these tests were not accurate, because they measure things that can easily be manipulated by control, such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Thus, these tests are not seen as an appropriate tool to determine the guilt of criminals anymore. However, there is now functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that has been used in court rooms in more present times. fMRI tracks oxygenated blood flow in the brain and follows increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain that can be associated with traits or actions.  However, fMRI does not track neurons, only blood flow, and the rest is inferred. So how precise can this method be, exactly?

Another example of inaccuracy in fMRI’s can be drawn from Brian Dugan’s 2009 case. His brain was scanned nearly 26 years after he committed his crime. If 25% of the prison population is psychopathic, couldn’t it be argued that Dugan’s brain began showing psychopathic behavior only after he committed his crime, or even possibly from spending so much time in prison?  It is fully possible that Dugan was in his right mind when he raped and killed a young girl, yet the judge for his 2009 case allowed brain imaging to be described (not viewed) in his case.

I am not disputing fMRI and brain imaging for criminals altogether. Rather, I am saying that for the current time, it is best to be cautious. Not only can fMRI be inaccurate, but it is proven that juries can be misled but scientific evidence that uses new, fancy technology. Juries can be tricked into believing that the science behind the evidence is more reliable than it actually is. I believe that until fMRI technology progresses, brain imaging should only be used to decide sentencing, not a guilty/non-guilty verdict. And for this to be accurate, this practice of using fMRI to decide sentencing should only be allowed if the images were taken within a short amount of time of the crime committed. With these precautions, the the jury would not be influenced to let a criminal get away with his crime. The jury could instead help the criminal get the help that they need, if they reach the decision that some of the criminal’s time should be spent in a mental hospital.

Neuroscience and the Law

August 4, 2014

In 2009 when Brian Dugan pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of a female nurse, brain imaging was by the defense as evidence to suggest that Dugan may not have committed these crimes intentionally or that he was in a mental state that would somehow make him less personally responsible. An fMRI was discussed and interpreted in front a jury but the jury did not physically see the scans. In some other criminal cases, a polygraph has been used to tell if a witness or defendant is not being truthful in their testimony. Also, fMRI has shown that certain parts of the brain are more active than when a person is being honest, however, there is not a consensus on if this is true for every individual.

An fMRI includes a large magnet that measures the flow of oxygenated hemoglobin in the brain. When there is an influx in a certain area of the brain, the machine detects the signal using the magnet and in the brain image, the parts of the brain where there was increased flow are lit up. The image is not very spatially accurate though and nothing can be derived about individual neurons. Also, there is a lot of variability in brain activity from person to person within an experimental group, which makes it nearly impossible to make a definitive conclusion about the specific level functionality of one subject. A polygraph picks up electrical signals and detects arousal from the neurons in your peripheral nervous system and in the ones associated with emotion. Using this data, an investigator can try to conclude how honest the subject is being. Questions must be asked in such a way that the investigator does not use data conclusively from the subject that includes neuronal activity that may be associated with being nervous just from being investigated or hooked up to a machine.

Some professionals, mostly including defense attorneys, in the field of criminal law are in favor of being allowed to use fMRI scans, the most recent development in neuroscience that may be able to display an individual’s brain activity and mental state, in court as evidence. Although not with any certainty, an fMRI can reveal the mental state of an individual in the sense that the defendant may not be sane or is incapable of using rational thought or judgment based on the size of brain regions and the level of activity in regions associated with decision making, fear, emotion, etc. This would then lower the guilt of the suspect themselves. To some, this may allow for a more well-rounded assessment of the suspect, as the suspect would then be less personally guilty, and to the best of its ability, the law tries to measure the degree of responsibility one has for their previous actions.

The main point against using fMRI in court as evidence is that a recent scan is not reflective of the mental state of the suspect when they committed the crime, but rather the state when the scan was performed. For the scan to be relevant however, it would have to reveal something about the defendant when he was breaking the law. Also, individual scans cannot be compared accurately because this technology is only used in research to study groups of people because there is too much variation among individuals to gather meaningful conclusions. fMRI scanning is not established for diagnosis of any psychiatric disorders and the polygraph can be very inaccurate in detecting signal that solely indicate a lie and not something unrelated. Therefore, it is said that it should not be used to sway the jury’s decision because the scan may be falsely interpreted by the defense attorney.

Personally, I don’t think a polygraph or an fMRI should be used as evidence in court unless the image is taken very near the time of the crime and is compared with the scans of many other people who have committed the same crime and also with people who have similar scans. One image does not allow for a scientific or medical conclusion to be drawn about a subject, especially because although the data may seem very different from the average, the subject may very well be within statistical boundaries of the average. Every juror probably will not understand how to interpret statistics about that data presented and will not understand that the technology does not allow research scientists to declare anything about the mental state of person, especially when the defense attorney is not a scientist. Whether or not the person was mentally stable when they committed the crime or whether they could think rationally is not relevant to the consequences of their actions. If someone is murdered, whether or not the assailant is crazy doesn’t change the fact that the person is dead. The effect that the actions of the assailant had on society is what matters. Criminal law exists to protect the general public. The punishment for the crime should be proportional to the physical and definitive damage done, not whether or not they were mentally stable in the act.

Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

The use of neuroscience technologies in court cases will most definitely revolutionize the enforcement of laws. Justice could easily be awarded if brain imaging technology is effectively utilized as further evidence. Until this point in time, only a few brain scanning techniques have been applied, but each comes with its own set of benefits and faults.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is most commonly used to measure electrical activity in the brain. In order to do so, these electrodes are typically fastened to a flexible cap (similar to a swimming cap) that is placed on the participant’s head. From the scalp, the electrodes measure the electrical activity that is naturally occurring within the brain. This type of brain scan is passive, no current is delivered. The signal being measured is the difference in charges between the electrodes. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a method that is used to assess changes in activity of tissue, such as measuring changes in neural activity in different areas of the brain during thought. Also, fMRI measures the change in the concentration of oxygenated hemoglobin, which is known as the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal.

There are positive and negative associations with each of these brain tests. EEG for instance directly measures brain activity, whereas fMRI does not, neural activity must be inferred. Also, an EEG is temporally precise and has the ability to detect brain synchrony. But because an EEG can be done by placing the electrodes directly on the skull, the test is movement sensitive and has poor spatial resolution. fMRI data typically have poor temporal resolution; however, when combined with sMRI, fMRI provides excellent spatial resolution.  This method is valuable for identifying specific areas of the brain that are associated with different physical or psychological tasks; fMRI is an excellent tool for comparing brain activation in different tasks and/or populations. Clinically, fMRI may be used prior to neurosurgery in order to identify areas that are associated with language so that the surgeon can avoid those areas during the operation. fMRI allows researchers to identify differential or convergent patterns of activation associated with tasks.

I believe that neuroscience technology is often not given enough credit in association with the law. Courts should be more open towards new methods of testing and new forms of evidence. There is a high percentage that these techniques will work in the favor of proving those innocent and guilty. With the establishment of the M’Naghten rule neuroscientists believe that they can such brain scans as a supplement to prove that an individual is not mentally aware of crimes they have committed or criminal activity. However, it must also be considered that perception of reality differs from person to person, not two people are alike. An EEG or fMRI may work for some cases, but not at all in others. But for medical advancements to come through in a court of law, these chances should be taken. Hopefully, not only criminal activity in the brain, but aid will also be provided in due time.

Forensic Neuroscience: Is it here?

August 3, 2014

The last few decades have seen outstanding progress in the field of forensic science. From fingerprints to ballistics to DNA profiling, crime detection has become less speculative and more scientific. Now, scientists are attempting to use brain imaging techniques as evidence of behaviors such as lying and psychopathic tendencies.

Neuroscience is a branch of biology that deals with the study of the nervous system. As the control center of the nervous system, the brain is the science’s obvious focus. However, the gargantuan complexity of the organ, combined with technological constraints means that there is still a great discrepancy between our understanding of the molecular structure and functioning of the brain, and its translation into individual behavior and personality.

However, scientists are making progress towards linking brain anatomy to behavior, and a great deal of the findings in this area can be attributed to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). fMRI can give scientists a vague idea of the localization of brain activity. It operates along the assumption that the areas of the brain that are most active will require the most oxygen and glucose (which are used by cells for energy). As oxygen and glucose are carried in the blood, the area with the most blood flow is the most active. fMRI evidence has shown what areas of the brain are connected with movement, learning and decision-making

The justice system is primarily concerned with the use of fMRI in lie detection and psychiatric diagnosis.

A reliable lie detection system could revolutionize the criminal justice system. The ‘not guilty’ plea could revoked entirely, with court cases focusing more on severity of sentence rather than the establishment of guilt. Malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment could also be greatly avoided. Polygraph tests (despite strong convictions within both the judicial and scientific communities of their inaccuracy) are still used as interrogation tools and attempted evidence. However, even the most recent research into lie detection using fMRI is unconvincing. Scientists haven’t been able to find specific indicators of dishonesty.

There has, however, been research suggesting the ability to detect predispositions towards overall honest or dishonest behavior. Given the extensive precedent for character witnesses, perhaps fMRI could play a role in establishing strength of character.

Psychiatric diagnosis has using fMRI has also received a great deal of attention. Diagnosis of psychopathy is highly regarded in criminal case proceedings. The current paradigm for this is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R) which uses a checklist of behavioral indicators for diagnosis. However, these behavioral indicators are proxies for abnormalities in brain function. The problem is, very little is known about what those abnormalities are. At very best, scientists have been able to show an overall difference in the size and activity of certain brain regions. Unfortunately, the parameters for normal and abnormal function overlap far too much to give a high degree of statistical certainty.

One must also take into account the effect that the use of fMRI could have on juries. The CSI effect is a well-known and extensively studied phenomenon. One aspect of this is the increased bias that juries show towards scientific evidence using ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘experimental’ technologies. Yet, these technologies (like fMRI) are not necessarily reliable. Hence, the use of fMRI as evidence could unfairly influence juries towards conclusions supported by the evidence, regardless of the validity of the evidence in question.

Therefore, I do not recommend that fMRI be admissible evidence in court cases. There are no fMRI indicators reliable enough to be convincing evidence of dishonesty or psychopathy, but the wonder and absoluteness associated with forensic techniques may cause juries to place undue worth in its findings.

Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

MRIs and similar neurological data is seldom used as evidence in trials, however they have the potential to reveal a substantial amount of information regarding a witness’s credibility and responsibility in the future. Functional MRIs measure the levels of oxygenated hemoglobin in the body that occurs when a part of the brain is particularly active. MRIs are essentially an indirect measure of neuronal activity, and provide images that describe somebody’s state of mind. This technology does not, however, measure the firing of brain cells directly, but rather deals with blood flow. In oder to define the imaging of a brain associated with a certain type of brain activity, the brain scan must be compared to an average of many scans. Thus, even though a defendant’s scan may appear vastly different from the average, it may still be well within the statistical average of brain activity.

Attorneys are beginning to ask judges to admit MRI data as evidence in order to demonstrate that a defendant is telling the truth or to dismiss accusations of insanity. While some judges accept this data because they believe it offers information that gives jurors a better understanding of an issue or salvages fruitless debates, other judges reject the data because they believe the scans would be too persuasive and carry too much weight due to their scientific nature. This has been a controversy in legal rooms, however the general consensus thus far has been that scans offer an unfair advantage to one side and carry with them prejudice. Furthermore, MRIs can only dismiss accusations regarding physical brain injury, and some criminal defense attorneys may introduce the scans in order to convince the jurors that the defendant is suffering from a cognitive or emotional disorder. The science of MRIs simply does not allow us to draw these conclusions as of yet.

Functional MRIs offer good scientific information, however very little of it is admissible in courts. For example, experiments using MRIs have proven that dishonest behavior is correlated with extra activity in certain brain regions which are involved in impulse control. Having date and images of this brain activity could be very useful in trials, as it could be a great indicator regarding the honesty of the defendant. However, most judges still refuse to accept this evidence. The main reason for this is that showing the brain scan of a defendant without a substantial amount of data from a similar population group would mislead a jury. Brain activity is not standardizes and scientists cannot predict the normal variations in brain anatomy. Judges already have a difficult task in evaluating whether psychiatric and similar disorders should be taken into account when discussing culpability. Allowing brain images, even highly informative ones, will only add to this challenge.

Another argument against accepting MRI evidence is that scientific advances have the potential of separating our brains and minds from our personal responsibilities. In the 2005 case Roper vs. Simmons, the US Supreme Court decided that no person younger than 18 at the time of the crime could receive a death penalty because juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and suffer from immaturity. In 2010, it was decided that a person younger than 18 was also excused from a sentence of life without parole. Although it is true that those younger than 18 are more easily influenced and less capable to make a decision than an adult, it is also true that a person, and not a brain, commits a crime. Where does neurological data stop being useful and start being used as an excuse for a crime?

In my professional opinion, brain scans and similar data should be kept to a minimum in a court of law. While they do hold potential and in some cases would make issues clearer for jurors, the limitations and consequences of these technologies pose a greater risk.

Neuroscience and the law

August 3, 2014

Using neuroscience technologies in court cases (such as newly advanced neuroimaging procedures) will undoubtedly have the potential to change law enforcement as we know it today. How we determine if someone is guilty could arguably become dependent on genuine scientific evidence. So far, the technologies that have been used as part of a court case (with a huge variety of reactions I should point out) include the fMRI (known to scientists as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), as well as techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and brain electrical oscillations signature (BEOS). Many more neuroscience technologies of this nature are currently under development, with a similar purpose in mind.

The fMRI works by measuring the activity of specific regions of the brain by means of blood flow to the area.  The assumption is made that greater blood flow to this region of the brain correlates to the activity of brain cells, which is then used as almost a modern day lie detector. Since the fMRI is not directly measuring signals between brain cells, an average is generated using multiple test subjects, to act as a comparison for the data obtained of the accused in the court room. An electroencephalogram is the recording of electrical activity across the scalp, which, like the fMRI, can be used as a form of lie detection. An abnormality in the pattern of brainwave activity will act as an indication that the individual is not being truthful. The assumption made with this technology is that every individual processes information that is familiar to them, differently from information that they do not recognise/ have never come across (and therefore the pattern will be slightly different). This enables neuro professionals to identify someone who is deceiving the court from someone who is not.

 The possibility that our brain could be responsible in shaping our behaviour is one reason why we should be using neuroscientific evidence in court cases. If this kind of technology had the ability to spot trends in the activity of the brains who have committed serious crimes, there is real potential for the development of treatments to “correct” this behaviour.

A major counter argument of using neurotechnologies such as the fMRI in the court room, is that the scans could have the potential to be used  by the defendant, as a persuasive argument for the benefit of themselves. He/she could argue that they have been clinically classified as a psychopath , with an abnormality to the brain, and that they no longer hold the responsibility for the crime they committed. Consequently, there could be an uproar that people can continue to commit crimes with no real punishment for their actions. Since the brain is the organ that makes us who we are, could this mean all behaviours could be excused on biological ground? Additionally, using evidence obtained from such neurotechnologies could  heavily influence jurisdiction one way or another in terms of the action that should be taken, and hence create bias in the courtroom.  There is also some concern as to whether neuroscience professionals could manipulate some of the scientific evidence in favour of their own opinions.

 As the knowledge of the brain stands, my view is that court cases should not  be heavily reliant on neurotechnologies. Currently, knowledge of various mental illnesses is not strong enough to give us definitive answers, and therefore could be dangerous in making such decisions. However, I do believe that as our understanding of neurological processes grows, that we should be looking more into the reasons behind our actions. Maybe for some individuals there is a genuine reason why they have acted in a particular way. I think that the use of this technology could be extremely useful in concluding the mental state of that individual, and could be the tipping point as to whether or not they are acquitted.

Neuroscience and the Law!

August 3, 2014

MRIs have been used in court cases for a little while. This technology offers evidence as to criminal intent and mindset. This evidence is used to change jury’s decisions and decide sentences for defendants. This type of evidence has been extremely valuable to many cases in the past, and has become the deciding factor in a few as well. Since it is possible to reduce a sentence for a crime to time in a mental facility, lawyers have been trying to get MRIs done on inmates in order to prove that their criminal behavior was something out of their control. If it can be proven that a criminal committed a crime because of a “problem” within his brain, the criminal may just get by with a mental facility sentence.

This could be advantageous if a criminal really has no control over their actions; if the defendant is mentally unable to comprehend the difference between doing what is good or bad. The defendant could have diseases within the brain that make them do things, and they really may not be as “evil” as they are made out to be with guilt. Should a criminal have done something based on mental illness or a difference found within the brain that does not coincide with a “normal” human brain, it could be extremely valuable to the court case. This proof of mental illness in criminals could lead to their getting help within mental facilities that could eventually lead to their recovery.

However, I believe that not all people are alike. I believe that this evidence should not always work the same for each and every person. I believe that some may thrive on a chance for recovery, and in this case the MRI evidence would be beneficial to the criminal and to the good of the public. However, there are others who may use the slightly lessened watchfulness and caution in a mental facility as a chance to escape or cause harm unto another. I believe it is impossible to judge whether people’s motives stem from problems within their brains or their own character. A person’s brain and a person’s character are two different but comparable things, depending on what one believes. The two line themselves up in a very indistinct grey area, making this idea of studying the brain vs. character flaws in court cases such a controversial idea.

I do believe that MRIs should be used in court cases. I feel as though they should be used to substantiate the evidence whether for or against the defendant. However, I do not believe that this evidence should be the deciding factor in the jury’s sentencing decisions. I believe that the former evidence should allow the jury to make the decision. After the evidence has been sorted through and motive has been established, I believe that the MRI evidence for mental illness, etc. can be put to use. Only then can a clear and just decision about the fate of the criminal be made.

Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

There has been much debate over whether or not brain scans and other neurological “evidence” should or should not be allowed. This debate is being fought on many different fields of science and within the jurisdiction system itself. Generally speaking, prosecutors are against the use of these scans in the court room as the jurors could be swayed in the direction that the defense is trying to show due to the stigma surrounding scientific “facts.” Scientific evidence such as scans will be highly appealing to the jurors and/ or judge. The defense attorneys are generally in favor of the use of these same scans for the same reasons listed above as to why prosecutors do not necessarily approve of them.

The most common neurological scans that are attempted to be placed into evidence by the defense attorneys (or maybe prosecution attorneys) are Functional Magnetic Resonance Images (fMRIs) and lie detector test results. Lie detection is based off of the blow flow, heart rate, and many other factors measured by a machine as the person being interrogated is answering questions. fMRIs work by placing a subject into the machine that tracts the blood flow within the brain between specific areas that are thought to correlate with specific function and actions.

The use of lie detectors has been dismissed for many years for the mere fact that the signals and other signs being measured can be controlled by the subject or influenced by the situation. If you can control your heart rate and breathing you may be able to trick the test; similarly, if you are nervous or stressed out, the machine may read what you are saying as a lie if it is in fact a truth. fMRIs cannot say definitively whether or not the disruption in blood flow is caused by activity in that brain region. They also do not give definite answers on whether or not the subject has a mental disorder that would affect his judgments and actions.

That being said, the use of them as evidence is not completely unjustified. Although they do not give perfectly accurate, definitive answers they can be used for a general judgment. Take the fMRI for example, it may not be able to show if each question answered is being answered truthfully, but it can show if the person was, in general, being honest. They can show if there is a malfunction or structural impediment that the person has that may have influenced his or her actions.

Personally, in the debate of the legal use of neurological scans and images, I would advise against it. I do not believe that the technology is advanced enough to give us the definitive answers that should be required by the courts. Once scientists are able to look at a scan, and say with almost no doubt that a subject, defendant, person, has something wrong with them that made it impossible for them to resist the urge to do what they did, then the use of these scans will be completely validated. Although they can provide reasonable doubt, is that because the jurors are easily swayed by the scientific look of the scans or the evidence they may or may not prove?

Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

MRI’s have been used in court before as evidence against and for defendants and victims. These brain-imaging devices use a very strong magnet to detect when there is more oxygen in a certain part of the brain which will show activity there. For example, when we are listening to music we will see increased activity in the temporal lobe, which is responsible for selective hearing and listening. But how could this be useful in court? Well, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) can read what we are thinking about. Whether it be about what we want to eat, or how to answer a question. This could lead to very accurate fMRI-based lie detector tests that could be used in court. Some lie detectors that are used today can be tricked and won’t always be 100% correct, but actually reading what the brain is doing, and where the activity is occurring is much more accurate. It can also be mentally scary for a defendant. They know that no matter what the truth will come out so they might as well confess. However, there are some downsides of fMRI. This new technology can help decipher mental states but a lot of the time, true inspiration or reason for committing crimes will not be discovered. We may not be able to rely on these tests as strong evidence, nor should be put a lot of weight into how much it will mean to a jury or judge. Furthermore,judges nor jury should be required to analyze the results of these tests themselves. Each side will need to bring in a neuroscientist to explain and analyze the given results. This can also bring misinterpretation because lawyers are trained to ask questions to the specialist that will give their side an advantage. Also, the two sides could have specialists that disagree with each other on the findings.   I recommend that we do admit and use the fMRI evidence in court, but with restrictions. The fMRI images and analysis should give evidence that clearly sides with either the defendant or prosecution, but the entire case should not be in the balance of the results. It should merely be used as affirmation of guilt or innocence.