Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Brain Scans Can Predict Criminality Before It Occurs; Yet, Ethical & Legal Issues Need To Be First Addressed

Criminal Behaviour

An article, by Regina Nuzzo, in Nature News says that neuroscientists can predict which criminals are likely to re-offend, that is, commit another crime, based on brain scans.
Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the non-profit Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his collaborators studied a group of 96 male prisoners just before their release. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the prisoners’ brains during computer tasks in which subjects had to make quick decisions and inhibit impulsive reactions.
The scans focused on activity in a section of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a small region in the front of the brain involved in motor control and executive functioning. The researchers then followed the ex-convicts for four years to see how they fared.
Among the subjects of the study, men who had lower ACC activity during the quick-decision tasks were more likely to be arrested again after getting out of prison, even after the researchers accounted for other risk factors such as age, drug and alcohol abuse and psychopathic traits. Men who were in the lower half of the ACC activity ranking had a 2.6-fold higher rate of rearrest for all crimes and a 4.3-fold higher rate for nonviolent crimes. The results are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.
There is growing interest in using neuroimaging to predict specific behaviour, says Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He says that studies such as this one, which tie brain imaging to concrete clinical outcomes, “provide a new and so far very promising way” to find patterns of brain activity that have broader implications for society.
To be sure, one of the traits shared by many criminals is a lack of inhibition and impulsive behaviour; but not all impulsive individuals turn to crime or illegal activity; and not all criminals are impulsive. There are cold-blooded criminals who are calculating, a list that is notable for its psychopaths and sociopaths.

There are a number of questions that need addressing. I for one would like to know how accurate such predictive scans are. As well, this raises both ethical and legals issues, common to dystopian fiction, where the use of such brain-imaging technology can decide which individuals are likely to commit a crime, before they actually commit it. In such fictional narratives, the state then locks up the individual, for the safety of society, for an indefinite period, or until re-conditioning or re-education proves successful, and the "criminal" is statistically likely to not commit any more crimes against the state. The authors of the study agree that such questions are important, Nuzzo writes:
Perhaps the most appropriate use for neurobiological markers would be for helping to make low-stakes decisions, such as which rehabilitation treatment to assign a prisoner, rather than high-stakes ones such as sentencing or releasing on parole. "A treatment of [these clinical neuroimaging studies] that is either too glibly enthusiastic or over-critical,” Wager says, “will be damaging for this emerging science in the long run.”


You can read the rest of the article at [Nature]