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Off the Bench
Hopkins experts teach the ways of the brain to judges from the criminal justice system.

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Lisa A. Cooper, a professor in general internal medicine and  epidemiologist

Violette Renard opened up a life-size model of the brain, then passed it around the class. The students, many in suits, peppered the neurosurgery resident with questions that seemed a tad out of line for a neuroanatomy lesson at Hopkins. Are some people genetically programmed to be violent? To what extent does behavior modification work? Can brain imaging prove that someone is lying?

Richard Eadie was curious about the amygdala, a part of the brain linked with negative feelings and violent behavior. "What do you make," he asked, "of a young girl who says, 'I get this angry feeling that just comes over me and sometimes I just get the urge to hit somebody!' Could that be organic? Would that have to do with damage to the amygdala?"

Perhaps, Renard said, adding that a predisposition to violent behavior does not mean it's uncontrollable.

Frowning in concentration, her listeners scribbled away. Although these students might flunk a test about the parts of the brain, they would remember the greater message: Knowledge of the brain is still evolving. Beware experts bearing neuroscientific proof of innocence or guilt.

At least, that was the take-home lesson for Eadie, a superior court judge in King County, Wash. He was among roughly 200 judges taking part in the National Judges' Science School, a three-day educational conference at Hopkins designed to help adjudicators better understand courtroom applications of neuroscience and biobehavioral technologies.

The School of Medicine, the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute and the Judicial Institute of Maryland served as co-sponsors of the program held in early October. It was created in collaboration with the Advanced Science & Technology Adjudication Resource Center (ASTAR), a national program that prepares judges to preside over high-tech cases involving complex scientific issues.

More than a dozen Hopkins faculty members, fellows and residents joined scientists from around the United States and Europe in presenting lectures geared toward the legal audience.

Planning for the event, which included selecting and inviting outside experts, took more than a year, says co-chairman Chi Van Dang, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine. Faculty presenters donated their time.

"They were more than willing to do it," Dang says. "They said they enjoyed it because it was intriguing and it helped them feel their work has social relevance."

Topics included the antisocial personality, brain cell engineering and the addicted brain. Neurosurgery residents tackled some of those issues in the neuroanatomy workshop. James Frazier III, who taught the class with Renard, told the judges that science is far from pinpointing the organic basis of criminal behavior.

"Many people are eager to unravel, or elucidate, the molecular basis for it, but they also have to take into account that a person's environment and upbringing may influence the development of their mind," he said.

What about functional MRIs, another judge wondered. What do they reveal? If a person uses a different part of the brain for lying than for telling the truth, could this technology prove to be the perfect lie detector?

"A functional MRI is a fancier method of MRI," Frazier explained. "You're imaging a person's brain to study its functions. You may ask the person to perform a simple task, such as counting or naming objects, and an area, or several areas, of the brain responsible for that function will light up. Can you read anything about personality from that? In my opinion, not at the present time."

Renard said some studies show that the right side of the brain, linked to creativity, is used when making up stories. Functional MRI research suggests that the right side also lights up more often when people are lying. However, she cautioned against reaching conclusions based solely on such technology. Although scans from two patients with brain damage can appear virtually identical, she said, one person may exhibit antisocial behavior while the other acts normally.

"The effect of damage is very variable. And that makes your job difficult," she told her students. "You need to take information from a lot of different professionals, from psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, in order to make an informed decision."

—Linell Smith

 

 

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