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Can/Should MRI Predict Criminal Reoffense?

March 29, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Neuroradiology
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The Mind Research Network says MRI brain scans can predict which criminals are likely to commit repeat offenses. That opens all sorts of interesting, and troubling, possibilities.

Researchers did functional MRI brain scans of 96 imprisoned adult male criminal offenders, ages 20–52, who had volunteered to participate in research studies. The researchers followed the subjects for four years after the inmates’ release from prison.

The study found that inmates with relatively low activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain associated with regulating behavior and impulsivity, were twice as likely to be rearrested for a criminal offense after release than inmates with high ACC activity.

Kent A. Kiehl, PhD, senior author of the study, said:

These findings have incredibly significant ramifications for the future of how our society deals with criminal justice and offenders. Not only does this study give us a tool to predict which criminals may reoffend and which ones will not reoffend, it also provides a path forward for steering offenders into more effective targeted therapies to reduce the risk of future criminal activity.

Dr. Kiehl was quoted in a news release from Duke University via EurekAlert! He is director of mobile imaging at the network and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of New Mexico. The Mind Research Network is a nonprofit association of scientists at universities, national laboratories, and research centers around the world. It focuses on imaging technology.

Another study author, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, PhD, the Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the philosophy department and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, said, “These results point the way toward a promising method of neuroprediction with great practical potential in the legal system. Much more work needs to be done, but this line of research could help to make our criminal justice system more effective.”

How, exactly? Will prisoners be approved or turned down for parole based on their brain scans? Will those whose scans indicate a “criminal brain” be required to wear electronic monitoring equipment as a condition of parole or prison release? Will, eventually, schoolchildren be screened, and those with low ACC activity get special scrutiny or be required to take impulse-control classes?

Could heightened surveillance based only on “neuroprediction,” not an actual offense, trigger anger inspired by the perception of unfair treatment, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Will radiologists be drafted into the criminal-justice system? Will a radiologist’s assessment of a borderline ACC reading—just above or just below the “likely to reoffend” threshold—be the deciding factor in a parole decision or a sentencing hearing?

In the 19th century, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso promulgated the now-discredited theory of the atavistic criminal—the notion that certain physical characteristics identified people who were “born criminals.” Many people inside and outside the criminal-justice system will be tempted to use this new research to support similar “biology is destiny” arguments.

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Such issues were definitely on the minds of the authors of a new study indicating that fMRI brain scans of children can detect biomarkers indicating a risk of schizophrenia. For details, see our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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