Advances in the field of neuroimaging have improved scientists’ understanding of the brain. Scans such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can show the innermost working of a brain and provide valuable information. These scans can be used to detect disease and abnormalities.
With increasing frequency, criminal defense attorneys have made use of neuroimaging in the courtroom to demonstrate how abnormalities in the brain can control behavior. Some interesting studies have come out over the last few years involving neuroimaging and the criminal brain.
Did the Defendant Knowingly Commit the Crime?
The length of a defendant’s sentence for a crime hinges profoundly on whether they were aware that they were committing a crime. A
found that neuroimaging can help distinguish between criminal intent and reckless behavior. The study looked at the brains of people while they were engaged in an illicit activity and used functional MRI to measure brain activity based on blood flow. The study found increased blood flow when an individual knew they were committing a crime compared to the blood flow in the brain when the individual only knew there was a chance they were committing a crime.
Brain Injuries Contribute to Criminal Behavior
Recent research at the
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
has shed some light on how brain injuries, or lesions on the brain, contribute to criminal behavior. Injuries to the brain such as trauma, stroke, or tumors can affect behavior depending on where they occur. Using neuroimaging, researchers mapped the brains of 17 individuals convicted of crimes ranging from fraud to murder and found that criminality was linked to damage to neural networks involved in morality, value-based decision making, and "theory of the mind." The majority of the individuals examined had no criminal history before their brain injuries. While the research is interesting, scientists still have more work to do in understanding the extent brain injury can affect criminal behavior.
Neuroimaging is the Future of Psychiatric Testing
Neuroimaging can provide better information and more accurate diagnoses of mental disability. As noted by Florida attorney Stephen G. Cobb in
Representing People with Mental Disabilities
A Practical Guide for Criminal Defense Lawyers
, edited by Elizabeth Kelley:
The use of outdated diagnostic protocols is both common and misleading. Merely asking a series of questions and performing psychometric testing are indirect observations of the organ tested. If your child broke an arm, you would expect the emergency room physician to use modern nuclear medicine to perform an X-ray before the bone was treated. If the physician did not do so, merely asked questions and then decided to operate in order to "take a look" in order to get a better picture of injury sustained and the treatment needed, you would take your child out of there and many would report the physician for medical negligence.
Yet how are disorders of the brain that directly control behavior treated? Exactly as described above. In less than an hour, a psychiatric physician will often prescribe chemical surgery on the most important organ in the body while the exact same diagnostic and treatment protocol would be medical negligence in orthopedic medicine. However, most insurance does not cover psychiatric brain imaging.
There’s still a long way to go, but neuroimaging is clearly the future in diagnosing and treating mental illness.
If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.