UK experts: Too soon for brain science use

2011-12-13 11:32

London - Criminal behaviour can't be blamed on how someone's brain is wired, at least not yet, says a report from British experts who examined how neuroscience is being used in some court cases.

"Having a psychotic brain is not a general defence against a criminal charge," said Nicholas Mackintosh, emeritus professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge, who led the group that produced the report. "There's no such thing as a gene for violence."

The report was done by the Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific academy. The document is part of the group's ongoing investigation of the effects of recent advances in neuroscience on various parts of society, including education and the law.

Another report early next year will look at the potential implications of neuroscience on military and security issues.

Useful for parole hearings

After examining the state of neuroscience and how it might apply to the legal system in the UK, the Royal Society concluded it's too soon for the law to be swayed by scientists' understanding of the brain.

Still, brain scans have been cited in an increasing number of cases in the US. The authors of the report said they could one day prove useful for matters like parole hearings when trying to predict whether someone will commit another crime.

The scientists said that while some criminals, such as psychopaths, have different brain structures from most people, these differences aren't enough to release them from being legally responsible for their actions.

Some experts said it was too simplistic to think brain scans could explain human actions.

"When we see a brain image, we want to assume a blob correlates to a complex behaviour," said Carl Senior, a neuroscience expert at Aston University in Birmingham and a spokesperson for the British Psychological Society. Senior was not connected with the Royal Society report.

Other factors to consider

He said many other factors like a person's upbringing and circumstances determined whether a crime was committed - and that a brain scan wouldn't be able to show that.

The report cited data gathered in the US by one expert that suggested the number of cases where neurological or behavioural genetics evidence was used in criminal cases had doubled from about 100 to roughly 200 during the years 2005 to 2009.

That information was reported by Nita Farahany, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University's law school.

Mackintosh said most of those cases were for defendants on death row. He said neuroscience has not yet been used in British courts and is rarely used elsewhere.

However, he cited a case in Italy, where a woman was convicted of killing her sister and burning the body, and attempting to kill her parents. Her defence team introduced genetic information showing the defendant had brain abnormalities, arguing that she was mentally ill.

In August, the court cut the woman's sentence from life in prison to 20 years.

Age of criminal responsibility

Mackintosh wouldn't comment on whether he thought that was appropriate, except to say that genetic data and brain scans should only be used in exceptional cases.

He also suggested neuroscience might be helpful in determining things like the age of criminal responsibility, which in England is age 10.

"The science says a 10-year-old brain is still immature and developing," he said, adding that the brain generally isn't fully developed until age 20.

There has long been a debate in the UK about the age of criminal responsibility, provoked in part by the 1993 killing of Liverpool toddler James Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both 10.

In 2001, both were released and given new identities, but Venables was later sent back to a prison hospital.

Senior acknowledged it was tempting to look to neuroscience as a possible explanation of criminal activity but that to do so would be a mistake.

"We just know far too little about brain imaging to draw any conclusions right now," he said. "But let's revisit the situation in a couple of decades and see where the evidence stands."

  • goyougoodthing - 2011-12-13 12:04

    Having a psychotic brain may not be a defence for crimes but surely we could put these people down :-)

      Squeegee - 2011-12-13 12:36

      You first, idiot.

  • ludlowdj - 2011-12-13 13:42

    London of course like South Africa goes one way while the rest of the world goes the other. There has been conclusive evidence since the early 2000's that there are measurable differences in the brains of people who are so called "born to kill", these differences although mostly learnt in adolescence show differences in the make up and size of different portions of the brain, most noticeably in the frontal lobe and the development of the communication sectors of the brain. The use of this as a defense is however seldom used, as a finding in favor of the accused would result in a life imprisonment without the option of parole. The only successful cases have been those where the defendant is found criminally insane and is committed to a mental institute for what is usually the rest of their days. I will however here concede that there are very few cases where the actual defense is a brain abnormality

  • EyesEars - 2011-12-13 13:58

    Question: Is there a difference between the warrior gene and a gene for violence? Some sort of explination will be appreciated, as I see no difference between the two.

  • Fred - 2011-12-13 14:23

    Well, the less brain cells you have, the more prone you are to committing a crime. Just look at our mostly brainless government officials. Not to talk about Malema's youth following.

  • Breinlekkasie - 2011-12-13 14:41

    A psychotic brain shouldn't be an excuse for crime but a reason to execute the criminal.

  • David - 2011-12-13 15:08

    I doubt that they could find a person guilty or not guilty based purely on the wiring of their brain unless there is a severe abnormality. Norway courts actually called Anders Behring Breivik insane since Norway dont have a life sentence or a death sentence. Only way to get him off the street was to declare him insane (and never release him). Environmental factors, factors during time of crime, substance abuse and even diet could make a person act violently anti-social. The brain is just a part of the reaction to external events.

  • TheWatcher - 2011-12-13 15:37

    There are some basic rules in society that should be followed, if you can't follow these rules then you must be excluded from society. Genetics and upbringing are no excuse for misdemeanors because the laws are in essence simple: do not murder, do not rape and do not steal. If you family has a history of violence and you were abused as a kid then that's very sad and you need help, BUT that does not give you an excuse to do the same to others. In the end every crime is a choice you make knowing what the consequences will be, if you make that decision then you have to live with the results.

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