Skip to main content

An overview of Neurointerventions and the Law: Regulating Human Capacity (Lawyers, Neuroscientists, Philosophers, and Psychologists in Conversation)

During the weekend of September 12th,
Georgia State University was home to fascinating conversations between
prominent lawyers, neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists. The
challenging, thought-provoking, and interdisciplinary nature of this forum was
condensed within its title: Neurointerventions
and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity

Image from AJOB Neuroscience

by the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium (ANEC), the conference sought debate on
the legal implications of using modern neuro-interventions. Some of the
questions that were raised included, but were not limited to:

  • What
    mental capacities does one need in order to be eligible for trial? For
    punishment? For release? For cognitive enhancement?
  • What
    policies should be in place to control such neuro-interventions?
  • What
    are the current neuro-interventions used in the courts, and how are they
  • How
    should we view the relationship between mental capacity and both moral and
    legal responsibility? 

from Knowing Neurons

conference gathered many prominent members of the MacArthur Foundation Research
Network on Law and Neuroscience. Some of the participants were Senior
Judge Andre Davis (U.S.
Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit), Nita
University), Walter
of Calgary, Stephen
of Pennsylvania Law School), Justice
David Nahmias
Court of Georgia), and Paul
Root Wolpe (Emory
Center for Ethics).

conference schedule was structured around four panels, each followed by
“parallel streams” of three 30 to 40 minute long related talks given by panelists
or conference attendees. Panels were released under the form of case studies
that raised valuable questions about the use of neuro-interventions in a legal
context. The format of the panel discussions was dynamic and interactive.
First, each panelist presented his or her own views on the topic, then the
chairs opened discussion among panelists by pointing out specific arguments,
converging or diverging positions, and follow-up questions prompted by the
panelists’ points. Finally, audiences had ample time to ask questions.

Image from The
Jury Expert

detailed information about each panel is available here, but following is a summary of each
panel. To better frame the general course of a panel, I will discuss the first
panel in more detail.

Panel 1: Making People Sane Enough for Release

case discussed was that of State
of New South Wales v Williamson
In 1990, a then 20-year old Williamson was sentenced to 24 years of
imprisonment on account of violent sexual assault. He was released after 22
years on supervised parole on the condition of continuing treatment with the
testosterone inhibitor cyprotene in the hopes of reducing the uncontrolled
sexual urges of the offender. The ensuing questions was, “Should a
neurointervention be a condition of release from prison for sex offenders?”.

Chris Ryan, a psychiatrist at the University of
Sydney, and Katrina Sifferd, a philosopher from Elmhurst College,
chaired the first panel. The panelists included a justice on the Supreme Court
of Georgia, two neuroscientists, and two philosophers – testimony to the
interdisciplinary nature of the conference. After the case was presented, Justice Nahmias
remarked – to my surprise – that neuro-interventions such as drug
administration and counseling in Georgia courts are pervasive, and designed to
keep as offenders out of the prisons. Philosopher Farah
Focquart then pointed
out that even though testosterone inhibitors may reduce sexual thoughts, there
is no evidence that they also remove aberrant sexual behaviors in sex offenders.

conversation took an interesting spin when the panelists started questioning
the divide between a sexual offender and a sexual offender with a sex disorder:
how does introducing self-control in the equation change the grounds of
culpability? Can we prevent sexual offenses from happening by finding a way to
increase self-control, rather than decreasing sexual urges? Ultimately, the panel
discussion arrived to a new, yet equally pertinent larger question: Is all bad
behavior pathological? Can categories that were previously restricted to the
legal sphere undergo medicalization, and how would that affect legal
responsibility and accountability? All these are intriguing questions that
require interdisciplinary evaluation as that promoted by the Neurointerventions and the Law

Panel 2: Making People Sane Enough for Punishment

panel focused on the case of Scott Panetti, a man suffering from delusional
disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse, who was
sentenced to death after murdering two people. The question raised by this
panel was whether neuro-interventions can and should be used to restore an
inmate’s eligibility for punishment. Follow-up questions included what exactly
constitutes eligibility for execution, and whether federal resources should be
invested in rehabilitating offenders just in order to be able to subject them
to punishment.

Scott Panetti : Image from The Austin

3: Making People Sane Enough for Trial

third panel attacked the highly controversial question of who should diagnose
whether an offender has the mental capacities to withstand trial, and whether
psychosis is always a proof of incompetency. The role and reliability of
science in the courts was evaluated, and panelists concluded that the
consideration of scientific insights within a court of law needs to satisfy
three distinct tiers of reliability: of
the method, of the method with respect to the case in question, and of the
person doing the expert testimony. Interesting corollary discussions explored
the reliability of eye-witness testimony, which has historically been shown to
be limited, particularly for cases in cross-racial cases. From a more
neuroscientific perspective, the panelists evaluated the various methods of
neuro-rehabilitation for schizophrenia such as memory enhancement drugs,
cholinesterase inhibitors, and electroshock therapy.

points made during this panel particularly stood out to me. First, in providing a
legal perspective on this question, Judge Davis made the stimulating remark that the law
is not concerned with our philosophical lives. Second, in discussing the
possible application of fMRI techniques to detect brain activation typical to
lying during testimony (that is, if imaging techniques ever become advanced
enough to reach reliability standards), how could the courts account for a case
in which a particular false event memory is true for the testifier?

Panel 4: Cognitive Enhancement

last panel was of particular interest to me. As a current college student, I am
witnessing some of my peers’ desperate and constant search to obtain
prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin in order to improve their
academic performance. The use of such drugs, by virtue of providing users with
increased mental abilities, may confer them an unfair academic advantage;
therefore, institutions such as Duke University have categorized the use of
cognitive enhancement drugs as a breach
of academic honesty
. The panelists discussed the necessity of policies such
as that instituted by Duke and other ethical implications of cognitive

Image from The


were eight distinct sessions of parallel streams, each consisting of three
talks related in one way or another to the topic of the panel discussion. Since
the audience of these talks was generally much smaller than that of the panel
discussions, these panels were a great way to further conversations and allow
more ample time for audience questions. Sometimes, however, it was difficult to
choose one stream in lieu of another.


conference integrated a poster session that attracted students from various
disciplines and institutions. Some of the titles were “Enhancing Brain Activity
Through Cognitive Entrainment”, “Coffee and Cognition”, and “Neuroscience and
its Mind Altering Potential for Marketing”.

Closing thoughts

I was
personally captivated by the interdisciplinary conversations I witnessed at the
conference. As a neuroscience student, I am much more familiar with the
specific tools of neuroscience and their applications than I am with Georgia’s
code of laws, for instance. In that respect, I learned quite a bit about the
legal perspective on mental illness and cognitive enhancement. Furthermore, I
have always been interested in how a fixed code of laws can address individuals
fairly, and Neuro-interventions and the
directed my questions towards new directions: Does justice mean judging
an individual against a fixed code applied broadly, or should it take into
consideration, for example, the effects of early childhood trauma on
neurodevelopment? Where should the line be set on this matter so that justice
is upheld?

mission statement is to “bring together individuals and institutions who are
concerned with the ethical, legal, and social implications of emerging
neuroscience research and technology, and the neuroscientific foundations of
moral behavior”. The Neurointerventions
and the Law
conference was a commendable effort to endorse the function of
the new group, and a standing proof to the need of engaging in
interdisciplinary conversation to advance both neuroscience research and the
effectiveness of the legal process. It is
only natural to engage multiple fields: we can only know what is just if we
form an idea of what it means to be human, and philosophy, psychology, and
neuroscience all bring different information towards constructing a more
complete answer.

Want to cite this post?

Lucaciu, I. (2014). An overview of Neurointerventions and the Law: Regulating Human Capacity (Lawyers, Neuroscientists, Philosophers, and Psychologists in Conversation). The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


Emory Neuroethics on Facebook