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Do You Solemnly Scan To Tell The Truth?

May 18, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Could fMRI become standard lie-detection equipment in courtrooms?

Well, a recent Stanford University study has found that reading brain waves via fMRI can indeed reveal when people recognize photographs.

Or at least, when they think they recognize photographs. Which is not exactly the same thing.

And the study didn’t address the question of whether subjects could deliberately fool an fMRI test.

So it’s probably good that a judge in a New York state court recently rejected a lawyer’s attempt to use fMRI during a case that hinged on a witness’s credibility. Meanwhile, a federal magistrate in Tennessee is currently considering whether to allow evidence based on fMRI lie-detection technology.

The Stanford researchers would urge caution. In a study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they asked 16 volunteers to examine hundreds of faces from an image database. Next, the researchers presented a second set of faces, including some from the original set and some new ones. The volunteers, with fMRI recording their brain waves, were asked to say which photos they recognized.

The researchers were able to isolate the specific brain patterns that accompanied recognition. Unfortunately, sometimes it was false recognition. Jesse Rissman, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Memory Laboratory, was the lead researcher. He told BBC News:

It was only as good as a person’s memory, and their memory may or may not be accurate.

So if a prosecutor thundered, “Where were you on the night of May 18?” fMRI could detect only whether the witness was being truthful about where she thought she was on the fateful night. And possibly not even that. Dr. Rissman said a devious witness might be able to game the system by focusing on some mental image other than the one the prosecutor wanted.

“We can’t tell from our data,” he said, “because our participants were asked to make honest judgments.” Bottom line, according to Dr. Rissman:

The practical application is far off yet.

In other words, you’ll see successful fMRI lie detectors on TV crime dramas long before you see them on TV news reports. Which could actually be pretty cool: “Stay tuned for Law & Order: Special Radiology Unit.”

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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