Is neuroscience ready to be used in the courtroom? Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a federal judge for the Southern District of New York, doesn’t think so. Lawyers have been attempting to use neuroscience as evidence with increasing frequency, for purposes such as showing brain dysfunction, proving pain, or acting as a lie detector. However, Rakoff and many other judges are cautious to use this still developing area of science as evidence because “[d]uring the last century, the law [has] embraced science in ways that were inhumane and harmful—and eventually discredited.” An example of harmful science being embraced by the law is the practice of eugenics, which caused several states to allow forced sterilization of women. Another example is lobotomies, which used to be regularly ordered by courts to treat psychiatric patients, some with consent and some without. And as recently as the 1990s, science with no solid basis was used to supposedly recover memories, which led to criminal convictions.
According to concerned judges, this is the danger of allowing neuroscience into evidence, as it can lead to reliance on information which may eventually be discredited, producing unethical results. The effects of these decisions may be permanent, so it is important for science to be very well founded before entering the courtroom; otherwise a fleeting, erroneous scientific theory could have life-long results. “The worst thing that can happen with neuroscience is that it gets into the courtroom before it’s ready,” said Rakoff. This of course begs the question: “how certain must scientists be before their findings can appropriately be used as evidence?” In other words, “how sure is sure?”
On September 27, 2013 the National Institute of Health (NIH) announced that it is seeking public comment on draft proposals regarding how researchers should share data from genomic research projects. The goals of the proposal are: to protect the privacy of participants in human subject research; to protect intellectual property rights; and to promote data-sharing in order to advance genomic research. Under the proposal researchers would be able to combine data from various projects, which would enhance the value of the scientific data collected. The public may submit comments to the NIH until November 20, 2013.
Researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences used stem cells to grow “primitive human brain tissue.” The scientists intend to use the tissue to study the early development of organs and medical disorders. The tissue could provide a much more useful and informative way to conduct research on the human brain; formerly, scientists conducted such research using the brain tissue of mice. A mouse’s brain does not provide an adequate model for the study of the human brain because there are vast differences in the way the brains of the two species develop. In addition, the scientists suggested that the primitive human brain tissue will allow researchers to avoid some animal experimentation.
Australian researchers at Monash University are constructing an implant for the brain that would restore some vision to individuals with macular degeneration or conditions like glaucoma. The device uses a combination of a wireless camera and a brain implant to stimulate the visual cortex. A visually impaired person using the device would be able see basic shapes and to navigate his or her environment with less difficulty. The idea of visual prostheses, less formally known as “bionic eyes,” is not new; researchers have been investigating the concept for the last twenty years. However this particular device is different because it will operate even if the user has no eyes. The device bypasses the optic system entirely.
Monash expects to be able to release a prototype in the first half of the next year.
According to a study of 96 inmates in New Mexico, low activity in the impulse control region of the brain indicates an increased likelihood of recidivism. The Mind Research Network of Alburquerque, New Mexico, used functional MRI scans of inmates’ brains as the inmates completed a decision-making test. Controlling for other risk factors, the study found that inmates with low activity in the anterior cingulate cortex “were about twice as likely to be arrested for a felony within four years of release . . .” Although additional research is necessary “to measure the reliability of the scans,” neuroscientist Kent Kiehl predicts that future therapies could increase activity in anterior cingulate cortex and lower the incidence of recidivism.
What if defendants currently incompetent to stand trial can be made competent through “direct brain interventions?” The possibility is again leading to questions about whether courts should ever order defendants to be made competent for trial through involuntary surgical or drug treatment. These are just a few of the issues raised by the possibility of “direct brain interventions.” Read more here.