- Published: June 5, 2015
One important debate concerning how neuroscience discoveries should impact the legal system regards the sentencing of criminal offenders possessing neurological disorders with no known treatment. These days science can diagnose certain neurological disorders that underlie abnormal behavior and, in some cases, science has pinpointed the molecular basis of such disorders as seen in Huntington’s disease (1).
On the one hand, we are aware of neurological disorders and how they may contribute to criminal acts, but on the other hand we have no way to treat these disorders. With today’s understanding of certain neurological disorders there is no known rehabilitation for such criminals. So in the absence of a cure for the neurological disorder, the only other option is a meaningless and nonconstructive incarceration. However, if there was a way to cure these people of their disorder, how should we approach such an issue?
Warren et al. have successfully used light-activated cation channels to re-establish neural signaling in motor neurons that were severed in rodent test subjects (2). It is thought this method of resurrecting neural signaling could have potential applicability in treating neurological diseases that require reviving lost neural signaling pathways. By possibly using such a treatment approach to counter the effects of Huntington’s disease, researchers can expand these methods to address other neurological disorders that are currently without treatment options. A similar view is shared by Cowan and Kandel:
“Discovery of the monogenic disorder responsible for Huntington disease and understanding its pathogenesis can serve as a paradigm for unraveling the much more complex, polygenic disorders responsible for such psychiatric diseases as schizophrenia, manic depressive illness, and borderline personality disorder (3).”
While treatment options for neurological disease are still years from grasp, the criminal system should begin contemplating how such therapeutic innovations should be used when attempting to rehabilitate criminal offenders. Such questions that may arise include the cost of such rehabilitation interventions, the circumstance that require such rehabilitation, as well as the possible side-effects of such neural regeneration methods (2) proven to work in animal models but lack extensive testing in human studies.
(1) Roze, E., Saudou, F., Caboche, J. Pathophysiology of Huntington’s disease: from huntingtin functions to potential treatments. Current opinion in neurology 21: 497-503 (2008).
(2) Warren, J.A., Xiang, L., Horn, K.P., Dhingra, R., Dick, T.E., Herlitze, S., and Silver, J.. Light-induced rescue of breathing after spinal cord injury. The Journal of Neuroscience 28: 11862-11870 (2008).
(3) Cowan, W. M. and Kandel, E. R. Prospects for neurology and psychiatry. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 285: 594–600 (2001).