Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Neuroscience in the Courtroom: An Attempt for Clarity

*Editor’s note: You can catch a lengthier discussion of this topic at our Jan 29th session of Neuroscience and Neuroethics in the News.

When people think about functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the courtroom, many often think of mind reading or colorful images of psychopathic brains. Portable fMRI machines capable of reading our personal thoughts pop into our heads and arouse a fear that one day a neuroscientist could reasonably discern our deepest secrets through a brain scan. Despite recent scholarship that suggests a world filled with covert fMRI lie detection devices is far away (if ever attainable), I think further attention should be paid to how people think about neuroscience and interpret scientific information that draws on brain-laden language, particularly in the courtroom (Farah, Hutchinson, Phelps, & Wagner, 2014). This topic is of special interest to me as it is the focus of my undergraduate research thesis. I also think it should be relevant to neuroscientists, ethicists, and journalists as well because the way in which people interpret and understand aspects of the brain and human behavior is perhaps a consequence of how such information is portrayed to the public.

Photo from Ali, Liftshitz, & Raz, 2014

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“Believe the children”? Childhood memory, amnesia, and its implications for law

How reliable are childhood memories? Are small children capable of serving as reliable witnesses in the courtroom? Are memories that adults recall from preschool years accurate? These questions are not only important to basic brain science and to understanding our own autobiographies, but also have important implications for the legal system. At the final Neuroscience, Ethics and the News journal club of the 2014 Fall semester, Emory Psychologist Robyn Fivush led a discussion on memory development, childhood amnesia, and the implications of neuroscience and psychology research for how children form and recall memories.

This journal club discussion was inspired by a recent NPR story that explored the phenomenon of childhood amnesia. Why is it that most of us cannot form long-term memories as infants, at least in the same way that we can as adults? This fundamental question has fascinated many researchers and psychologists and neuroscientists today are tackling it in innovative ways. Even adult memory of the recent past is not nearly as reliable as most people (and jurors) believe1 and while 2-year-old children can report long-term memories from several months prior2, adults typically cannot recall memories from before age 3.5. The emergence of autobiographical memory may arise from the realization of the self (~2 years) and acquisition of language skills, but it seems to happen gradually. Childhood amnesia may actually be the result of a slow conversion to recalling self-experienced episodes rather than just events themselves.3

Via medimoon.com

However, the general public has been shown to have a rather poor understanding of memory,1 perhaps due to “common sense” beliefs and cultural traditions. These common sense and cultural notions are deep-seated and may even have more influence in our society than the latest research, especially if those findings are not effectively communicated to the public. In fact, there is significant disagreement between the memory experts and judges, jurors, and law enforcement on the reliability of childhood memories recalled by adults.4 For example, nearly 70% of experts surveyed agreed that “Memories people recover from their own childhood are often false or distorted in some way”, but only about 30% of jurors thought that statement was true.3

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ethical Issues in Neurosurgery: A Special Issue of Virtual Mentor

This month the American Medical Association's journal Virtual Mentor published a series of articles about the ethical issues pertaining to neurosurgery. Some of the articles include discussions about deep brain stimulation in early-stage Parkinson Disease, simulation and neuro-surgery teaching tools, and integrating ethics into science education. The special issue also featured two members of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience: editor-in-chief Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, and editor Dr. John Banja. The issue was guest edited by a neurosurgical resident at Emory University, Jordan Amadio. Click here to view the special issue.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Neuroscience and Human Rights

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the International Neuroethics Society Meeting in Washington, DC, made possible by a travel award from the Emory Neuroethics Program. This year's meeting featured panelists from diverse backgrounds: government, neuroscience, ethics, law, engineering, public health, and others. Each participant and attendee offered her unique perspectives on topical issues in neuroethics.

As I listened to many thought-provoking presentations and discussions, a question kept arising in my mind: to what extent should scientists engage with issues of social justice if their research findings support changes in public policy? As a "war on science" continues to be waged by members of the U.S. Senate and Congress (see Senator Coburn's 2014 "Wastebook," and the recent NPR Science Friday response by targeted scientists) and the American public lags in scientific literacy (A NSF report this year found that 1 in 4 Americans think the sun orbits the earth), this question carries a particular sense of urgency. Isn't science supposed to support human flourishing and maximize our well-being, as the American Association for the Advancement of Science puts it, "for the benefit of all people?" How accountable should scientists be in ensuring that this actually happens, beyond the scope of their laboratories?

My reflections on these questions were ignited by a fascinating example of how neuroscience can inform policy, provided by Katy de Kogel of the Dutch Ministry of Justice. Dr. de Kogel spoke of recent shifts in Dutch criminal law that reflect neuroscientific consensus: the neural substrates that support decision-making are not fully "online" in the developing, adolescent brain. In contrast to United States legal code, which specifies that individuals above the age of 18 be prosecuted as adults, thus barring them from legal protections offered to minors, Dutch courts have incorporated scientific understanding of neurodevelopment into their criminal code by advancing the age at which individuals are tried as minors: from 18 to 22 years of age. Criminal research findings support this change, as minors housed in adult detention centers tend to have higher rates of recidivism than those detained in juvenile centers. In my view, this is a refreshing and somewhat unexpected example of how society can benefit from advancements in neuroscience. We often think of science producing technological or medical innovations that improve our lives, rather than ancillary benefits like this that are impossible to foresee at the outset of a project.

Katy de Kogel of the Dutch Ministry of Justice (Courtesy of Dr. Gillian Hue)