The most obvious applications for neuroscience in law, and the ones we have thought about most in the neurolaw class, concern treatment and conviction of criminals and criminal behavior.Neuroscience, however, could possibly have implications for civil rights as well.In light of the recent passing of proposition 8 in California, an amendment to the state constitution that bans same sex marriage, the question of the genetics dictating behavior could have interesting effects.
Explaining dangerous behavior through genetics will help us understand mental disorders such as sociopathy, but will not mitigate our treatment of criminals.What about explaining behavior that is not directly harmful to anyone, but is considered taboo by some groups?There has been much research devoted to both genetic and neurohormonal explanations for sexual orientation.Plenty of evidence that genes influence sexual orientation has been found, but there has not been compelling evidence identifying specific genes (1).Like most complex behaviors, it is likely that homosexualityis brought about by a combination of genes and environment.It seems inevitable that pre-disposition genes will be found for homosexuality, but will this make people more likely to accept the behavior?Transsexual people are also ostracized and despised by many groups, but it was recently shown that gender identity is very strongly correlated to the size of a specific nucleus in the hypothalamus.It turns out that the identity held by transsexuals agrees with the identity implied by the size of this specific area in the brain (2).With better biological understanding of minority groups and behaviors, perhaps we will see a rise in fair treatment of these groups.
There will always be those who do not change their opinions, but I believe science will be a tool to fight for equal rights among these groups, and importantly could stop some of the hateful crimes committed against them for behavior that hurts no one.
As a neuroscientist in training, I have come to understand science as a dynamic continuum of knowledge rather than a static pyramid of building blocks.It is exciting to read a research paper that claims to have the answer to cure an awful human disease, but becomes less exciting when that treatment never comes to fruition, or when you read another paper that contradicts those findings, or when your mentor points out striking flaws in experimental design.I would like to think of science in its ideal, as a pure, accurate process, but the incredible complexities surrounding the workings of life makes any biological science tricky to deconstruct.This is an even greater problem in the field of neuroscience, as the nervous system is one of the most complex biological constructions.This creates a field ripe for research, but fraught with difficulties.
These understandings must lead us to caution when applying the findings of researchers to determine the fates of accused criminals.A paper by Ioannidis in PLoS Medicine addresses that most published research findings are in fact false1.This is not particularly surprising, given the pressure to publish and the bias towards publishing only positive results.
Although great care is taken before approving drugs for human use, it is easy to fear that, based on the blood- lust shown by the general public towards criminals, there could be much less care to screen methods before using them to lock people away. What if what science tells us is wrong?One common example of this fear lies in the possible use of fMRI for lie detection, which has been mentioned by a couple of posts previously.Functional MRI, while it is expanding and informing and entire field, is a limited instrument.What if fMRI leads to falsely accused victims because of an abnormal brain activation pattern not accounted for in any of the test groups?Using fMRI lie detection as evidence to sway a jury seems very premature, but should also not be a huge concern.Due to the nature of fMRI scanning, (which requires absolute stillness and cooperation), this technology could only be used on consenting people, and will probably serve more as proof of innocence rather than guilt if it does come into common use.
The fact remains, however, that any headline-making breakthrough should be weighed carefully, as science, although an excellent ideal, is fallible.If an enormous advance in science is implemented into the legal system, but later found to be incorrect, public trust in research could be lost.It is therefore in the best interest of both science and the public that scientists be conservative in their claims, and exceedingly thorough in their research.
Ioannidis JP. Why most published research findings are false.PLoS Med. 2005 Aug;2(8):e124.
Mental illnesses seem like foreign conditions that strike faceless, unfamiliar people. We hear about people who suffer, but then move on in life and don’t really register the impact of having a mental illness. But mental disorders are much more prevalent that I used to think. I was particularly surprised by how many children are affected. In fact, “research shows that approximately one in five children has a diagnosable mental disorder” (1). Furthermore, there is so little governmental support for these patients, and it is startling to hear that “more than three-quarters of these children don't get the services they need, and what they do get is based purely on chance: which state they happen to live in” (1). With so few children actually receiving treatments that they should be offered to recover or at least acclimate better into society, one has to wonder about the consequences.
A serious issue that should be brought to attention is the correlation of suicide in young adults today and mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “suicide is the third leading cause of death for ages 10-24 years…[and] more than 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder” (2). This statistic is absolutely ludicrous considering the fact that suicide is a completely preventable and voluntary act. Furthermore, the fact that these disorders are diagnosable and these people are still not getting the care and treatment needed is unfathomable. Yes, perhaps some diseases are unpreventable and not curable, but for those that are, this issue absolutely must be addressed. And yes, while it may be more expensive to offer treatments to more people, is there any other cause than saving lives that is more worthwhile?
It is widely known that the pre-frontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain, is less developed in adolescents, so it makes even more sense to give them extra mental health attention. Laws need to accommodate disabled people better and these statistics are proof of that.
In his article titled Will Neuroscientific Discovers about Free Will and Selfhood Change our Ethical Practices?, author Chris Kaposy refutes the claim that neuroscience cannot determine our core beliefs about ourselves. Kaposy offers three reasons to be skeptical of such a significant change. He mentions that first, people are most unlikely to be responsive to scientific claims that somehow undermine or threaten their identity. Second, people may believe that neuroscience solely controls our free will, however, they would keep these views in isolation and never actually incorporate them into their practical lives. Finally, Kaposy offers the compatibilistic view in which he states that if people are willing to endorse or identify with their motivations, then their actions have some source within themselves, and thus are not coerced by some other mechanical process as previous neuroethicists have mentioned.
After reading the article, I must align my views with those of Kaposy. I believe that the brain does play some influence over our free-will to a certain extent; however, our free-will predominantly arises from our moral and conscious desires.As I read this article, I asked myself whether or not free-will could be influenced by some other factors. I was particularly thinking about how complications in the amygdala or some other part of the brain may cause a person to change their normal behavior patterns and thus in essence, change the will of that person. While this may occur, I realized that this change can no longer constitute a Free-will. Because there is some other uncontrollable mechanism coercing the brain to change behavioral patterns, free-will is no longer free and the argument is illogical. Kaposy closes the article with the fact that such radical changes in the perception of neurology and its supposed effect on our free-will is much too drastic, and therefore would never materialize into a legitimate concern.
Although the use of brain imaging scans in the legal system is arguably more reliable than any drugs that make people tell the truth, the same ethics can be applied. If, one day, a drug can be manufactured to be at least 95% accurate (as the No Lie fMRI claims to be), under what conditions will courts accept information received from criminals as real evidence? How is this much different than a lie-detection machine? As of right now, these kinds of drugs are highly unreliable; accounts of people who have taken such drugs often mix fact and fantasy. It has also been said that the use of a truth serum does not increase truth-telling, but merely increases talking; therefore, truth is more likely to be revealed, but so are lies (August Piper Jr). But assuming that both methods (truth serum and lie-detection machine) were both equally accurate in terms of the amount of information being extracted, the end result would be the same – the “truth” would come out. However, one is different from the other in that giving someone a drug to intake is much more personal than getting a machine to virtually do the same thing.
Although they are classified as a form of torture according to international law, truth drugs, which are used to try to get information from someone who is unwilling to voluntarily give out the information, have been used in the past by India’s CBI (equivalent of FBI). A father of a dead girl was detained and drugged with one of these truth serums, sodium pentothal, and then based on this “evidence” he was declared innocent in July of 2008 (The Times). Later, another accomplice was being tested with the same drug. India started legally using this drug in 2000, but national debate has arisen about its use by police. Prisoners are taken to a forensic lab where they are given the drug by a doctor, inducing them into a trance-like state. A psychologist then asks the prisoner questions for about a half hour directly after getting the dose. Human rights and medical ethics advocates accuse police of using “narcoanalysis”, saying that the drug tends to be administered against the prisoner’s will and can cause health complications (The Times). It is regarded as a form of torture in other parts of the world because the drug has a side-effect of becoming drowsy, and doctors often have to slap prisoners to keep them awake. Even if an effective truth serum did exist, ethical questions like whether doctors should administer a drug for nonmedical purposes and how investigators would gain legal authority to drug a suspect against his will would surely arise (Martelle).
The Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article4339549.ece
Scott Martelle http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/05/news/cl-282
August Piper Jr., MD "'Truth serum' and 'recovered memories' of sexual abuse: a review of the evidence". Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Winter 1993 447-471.
A recent article in the New York Times ("India’s Novel Use of Brain Scans in Courts Is Debated") details the first case of a court convicting and sentencing someone of a crime based solely on evidence from a controversial brain scanner. The Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature (BEOS) test uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) to detect whether regions of the brain show changes in activity in response to hearing and smelling details of the crime. Proponents of BEOS claim that the test “can distinguish between people’s memories of events they witnessed and between deeds they committed.” In the murder case from Pune, Maharashtra, India, the BEOS test was employed to determine whether Aditi Sharma had actually committed the murder of her husband, Udit Bharati. The judge asserted that the results of the scan proved that Ms. Sharma had “experiential knowledge” of committing the murder, rather than simply hearing about it, and sentenced her to life imprisonment.
The use of brain scans like BEOS has raised several ethical and legal considerations in neurolaw. Firstly, experts disagree about whether this technology, and others similar to it, still needs development and whether or not it is ready to be used in courts of law in its current state. My opinion on this issue is that the technology seems very promising, but is still unproven. We should continue to work on developing these brain-scanning techniques, but should not use them until they are peer-reviewed and independently replicated, and experts can agree that the technology’s results are trustworthy and reliable. A less subtle issue that I found in this article was with regard to informed consent. The article suggested that individuals consent to the brain scan because they are under the impression that cooperation excuses them from extensive police interrogation. This is clearly not the case, which brings up the issue of whether or not “informed” consent is truly obtained from subjects such as Ms. Sharma, and whether or not this is ethically, morally, and legally permissible. Along these same lines, the issue arises as to whether or not adopting these brain scans pervasively infringes on our basic rights against unreasonable search and self-incrimination, protected by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, respectively. It is unfortunate that in the case of Ms. Sharma, her punishment was determined mainly by unproven technology; however, the prospect of discovering a neuroscientific method by which deception can be completely eliminated in criminal hearings is exciting. We must remember, though, to keep in mind the legal and ethical implications of the technology’s use in policy- and decision-making.
Addiction is hard to understand. If someone has a bad habit that is lifethreatening why don’t they just stop? Addiction comes in many varieties. Excessive eating, gambling, shopping, drug abuse, and smoking are a few examples of addiction. Scientists have found that addictive behavior is difficult to control because ‘addictive’ activities apparently hijack the brain’s reward mechanisms.
Neurons in the reward pathway make us feel good when they release the neurotransmitter dopamine at a synapse—a small gap between two neurons. The dopamine acts as a transmitter, in turn stimulating the following neuron by binding to specialized receptors. Addictive substances hijack this system by increasing the amount of dopamine in the synapse. (There is an ins diagram of this process on Time Magazines’ website).
Research suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to addiction. There is no such thing as an ‘addiction gene.’ However, some people do carry a combination of genes that make them more susceptible to addictive behavior. Environmental factors also play a role in whether addictive behavior is expressed or not.
Drug abuse is commonly related to criminal or violent activity. For example, according to the ONDCP Drug Policy Fact Sheet, “Data collected from male arrestees in 1998 in 35 cities showed that the percentage testing positive for any drug ranged from 42.5 percent in Anchorage, Alaska, to 78.7 percent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Female arrestees testing positive ranged from 33.3 percent in Laredo, Texas, to 82.1 percent in New York, New York.”
It's unreasonable to claim that criminals are genetically predisposed to addiction and therefore abuse drugs. It's not my useful to claim that drug abuse leads people to commit violent crimes. However, what is known about addiction in the brain does suggest that perhaps some of these individuals would benefit from treatment for addiction in addition to legal prosecution for their crimes.