Apr 12

Neurocriminology: What can a brain scan tell us about criminal behavior?

By Hannah Turner, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student


What if I were to tell you that neuroscience could predict whether an adolescent was likely to grow up to be a criminal? Or that scanning the brain of a criminal could predict the likelihood of recidivism, especially in cases involving violent offenders? Are you able believe that such a fate could be determined by your brain?


From nytimes.com

From nytimes.com

Neurocriminology is a developing subdiscipline of neuroscience that looks to answer these questions. Neurocriminologists seeks to better understand and establish the neurobiological basis of criminal behavior by exploring correlations between anatomy and functionality of the brain and the occurrence of crime. Criminal behavior is a significant threat to public health and there are considerable social and economic costs to incarceration. Further dissecting the “why” of criminal behavior and crimes committed using neuroscience could have substantial benefits to our society as a whole. Developing a neurobiological profile of a criminal could allow for the prediction and even the eventual prevention of crime in cases of timely intervention.


Psychopathy, also known as anti-social personality disorder, can be a significant predictor of violence and criminal behavior. The disorder tends to emerge in childhood and is characterized by a variety of symptoms including lack of empathy, impulsivity and flat affect. Psychopaths as a whole are up to twenty-five times more likely to be incarcerated and up to eight times more likely to violently recidivate after release compared to the non-psychopathic population. They can be viewed as a sizeable strain on society when you consider the violent acts they sometimes commit against innocents and the economic costs associated with their incarceration.


As neurocriminologists have begun to explore the minds of psychopaths using imaging techniques, they have found striking abnormalities in certain regions. Dysfunction has been seen across many studies in the frontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala specifically, which are all implicated in moral judgement and decision making. With increasing reliability of the neurobiological profiles that researchers are building, we are getting closer to painting an accurate picture of the brain of a psychopath. If brain scans were to be used to determine if an incarcerated criminal was truly a psychopath, they could be a tool to evaluate the likelihood of recidivism. This technique could be especially helpful in instances when violent offenders are up for parole and being considered for release into society. But does this violate the rights of criminals? Would any criminal volunteer to have their brain scanned and chance being labeled as a psychopath? Would it be ethical to make scans like this mandatory?


From upenn.edu

From upenn.edu

There are other applications of these profiles being developed by neurocriminologists and researchers that are even more problematic. Given that the disorder tends to emerge in childhood, the brains of children exhibiting violent tendencies or a lack of empathy could be scanned to evaluate for markers of psychopathy or criminality. Although this presents an opportunity for intervention early on in life when the brain is more plastic, it clearly raises some questions. Is it appropriate to label a child as a psychopath? To be placed into a category that has such negative connotations and stigma so early on in life could be a substantial disadvantage. A child of course is unable to consent to such a thing, so is it appropriate for parents to submit their children for these kinds of studies?


In many ways neurocriminology sounds like a tool that could be used to protect society at large, but advances will come with ever steeper costs and continually perplexing ethical questions. As this subdiscipline of neuroscience progresses there will be more opportunities to protect public interests, although often times this could be at the cost of the rights of an individual. Neurocriminology presents an unexpected dichotomy between public health interests and the freedoms that we have as American citizens.



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