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Neuroscience in court: My brain made me do it

Wednesday, Aug 29, 2012
Reuters
By Kate Kelland

LONDON - He was once a respected pediatrician, loved by patients and their parents for over 30 years. Now Domenico Mattiello faces trial for pedophilia, accused of making sexual advances towards little girls in his care.

Scientific experts will argue in court that his damaged brain made him do it, and his lawyers will ask for leniency.

It's the latest example of how neuroscience - the science of the brain and how it works - is taking the stand and beginning to challenge society's notions of crime and punishment.

The issue has been thrown into the spotlight by new technologies, like structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans and DNA analysis, that can help pinpoint the biological basis of mental disorders.

A series of recent studies has established that psychopathic rapists and murderers have distinct brain structures that show up when their heads are scanned using MRI.

And in the United States, two companies, one called No Lie MRI and another called Cephos Corp, are advertising lie-detection services using fMRI to lawyers and prosecutors.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

While structural MRI scans show the structure of a brain and can highlight differences between one brain and another, PET and fMRI scans can also show the brain in action, lighting up at particular points when the brain engages in certain tasks.

But the dazzling new technologies and detailed genetic data leave unanswered the issue of whether criminal courts are the right place to use this new information.

"The worry is that the law, or at least some judges, might be so overawed by the technology that they start essentially delegating the decision about guilt to a particular form of test," says Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience at Oxford University.

The lawyers for American serial killer Brian Dugan, who was facing execution in Illinois after pleading guilty to raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, used scans of his brain activity to argue he had mental malfunctions and should be spared the death penalty. In the event, Illinois abolished capital punishment while he was on death row.

In a court in the Indian city of Mumbai, a woman was convicted of murder based only on circumstantial evidence and a so-called brain electrical oscillations signature profiling (BEOS) test, the results of which prosecutors said suggested she was guilty.

The days when mental capacity for crime is argued over by psychiatrists unaided by sophisticated machinery - such as Friday's verdict that Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik was sane when he killed 77 people - look numbered.

"All sorts of types of neuroscience evidence are being used for all sorts of types of claims," says Teneille Brown, a professor of law at the University of Utah. "The question is, is this technology really ready for prime time, or is it being abused?"

Next  Next  'Acquired paedophilia'

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