Monday, March 3, 2008

Experts Study Neuroscience Use in Courts

That's the title of an article from the Associated Press, which appeared March 2, 2008 in The Washington Post:

"When Peter Braunstein was put on trial last year for a twisted Halloween torture attack, his lawyers used a visual aid to suggest that his actions were the product of mental illness.

It was a scan of the defendant's brain. A doctor testified that the patterns it revealed indicated that Braunstein, accused of donning a firefighter's costume and imprisoning a woman for 13 hours, suffered from schizophrenia.

The New York trial was one of a growing number of instances in which cutting-edge neuroscience has found its way into U.S. courts.

Brain scans have emerged as potentially powerful tools in battles over defendants' sanity. More defense attorneys are seeking scans showing brain damage or abnormalities that might have made it difficult for their clients to control violent impulses.

And experts say there is much more to come - including a few things that seem the stuff of science fiction. Within years, brain scans might be capable of serving as reliable lie detectors. Similar tests could potentially show whether a plaintiff in a personal injury case is really in pain, or faking it for sympathy, and brain images might even help jurors assess the reliability of a witness's memory.

However, some question whether the legal community might be moving too fast to embrace unproven technology.

'There is a danger here that the cart can get ahead of the horse if we're not careful,' said Dr. Marcus E. Raichle, a pioneering researcher of neurology and radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

While the potential of brain imaging is huge, he said, it may yet be a leap to claim that scans could be used to accurately detect lies,or say conclusively that a brain abnormality caused a specific person to become violent.

'As a general statement, we are probably not ready to have this in front of a jury,' Raichle said. 'It is probably premature, but that hasn't prevented it from happening.'

Figuring out just what types of neuroscience are ready for the courtroom is one of the goals of a $10 million Law & Neuroscience Project funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The effort, which began this past fall, has brought together legal scholars and top scientists to examine the proper role of neuroscience in the legal system. ..."

The U.S. Supreme Court considered an amicus brief regarding brain development as part of its deliberation in Roper v. Simmons, the case in which the court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders (those under age 18 at the time of the crime).
More information is available at:

Law & Neuroscience Project: http://
MacArthur Foundation:

Read the full article:

Thanks to Sandrine Ageorges for passing this along.

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