Where the brain meets the law

MRI of brain Mark Stehle

The emerging field of neuroscience has the potential to answer questions about human behavior, memory and emotion, and help us better understand criminal behavior and addiction.

But Stephen Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law and professor of psychology and law in psychiatry, says it’s not yet clear exactly what the relationship should be between neuroscience and the law. There have been attempts, he says, to use neuroscience imaging studies and MRIs to support various defenses and claims at death penalty proceedings, but the rules for bringing this emerging science into the courtroom are far from clear.

In the first steps to navigate this thorny path, Morse joins other legal scholars, scientists and philosophers in the Law and Neuroscience Project, a three-year, $10 million project supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Morse, a criminal and mental health law expert, is co-directing a group on addiction and antisocial behavior and is joined by several Penn colleagues: Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience; Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology and Psychiatry; Charles O’Brien, professor in the Department of Psychiatry; and Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law.

The purpose of the group, says Morse, is to bring experts together to address some of the legal questions that will arise as neuroscience makes advances towards an understanding of behavior, motivation and emotion. “We don’t want the train to leave the station, headed in the wrong direction,” he says.

The Project will hold three major conferences, publish papers and provide a primer for judges and practicing lawyers to minimize errors that result from a lack of understanding about what neuroscience can—and cannot—tell us.

“What we hope to do [is set] a general research agenda for neuroscience that would be legally relevant to really show that there is a ‘there’ there in the field, and that we are ready to go with a program of research at the end of three years.”

The Project will highlight some fundamental questions that arise in discussions about neuroscience and the law, including how one becomes a criminal and whether there’s a biological basis for criminal behavior or addiction. There are other questions, too: When should the court allow brain scans as evidence? Should laws governing criminal responsibility be rewritten in light of scientific evidence?

Addiction, at least, is one area where neuroscience is quite advanced, says Morse.

“We really seem to think we have a pretty good understanding of how the neural mechanism reward in the brain ... gets usurped by drugs,” he says. “If we understand this, it’s a window into a bunch of things. First, it raises questions about responsibility. How does a messing up of the brain’s reward system affect responsibility? Second, it gives us a window into other impulse control problems.”

But Morse emphasizes that the project has no political agenda. “One thing to remember is the same neuroscience that allegedly might show that someone who is less responsible [for their actions], could actually be more violent, too.”

For more information on the Law and Neuroscience Project, go to: www.lawandneuroscience.org.

Originally published Nov. 1, 2007.

Originally published on November 1, 2007