Brain Scans Can Predict Which Criminals Are Likely to Get Re-Arrested

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While criminal activity can’t be reduced to a brain image, understanding changes in brain function could improve the way criminals are rehabilitated.

In research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists found that brain scans can predict with startling accuracy the likelihood that criminals will run afoul of the law again. But they caution that the results of such “neuroprediction” requires serious legal and ethical debate before being introduced into the criminal justice system.

The study included 96 male felons, including burglars, robbers, drug dealers and men convicted of assault. All had been sentenced to at least a year in prison. Many had alcohol or other drug addictions and 20% met criteria for a diagnosis of psychopathy or extreme antisocial behavior but none had been convicted of homicide. All agreed to perform a specific task that measured impulse control while their brains were scanned in an fMRI machine. Participants pressed a key on the computer when they saw the letter X, which appeared about 84% of the time. But they had to avoid hitting the key when a K appeared. That required curbing their automatic response to press the key, since the X’s appeared so frequently.

The scans found that those with low levels of activity in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) while they executed the exercise were more than twice as likely to be re-arrested within four years of their release, compared to those with higher activation in the region. The test normally activates the ACC, which is involved in regulating planned behavior, since not pressing the key when the K appeared required a conscious and organized response. The elevated risk remained even after the scientists controlled for other known criminality risk factors such as age, psychopathy and addictions.

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For nonviolent crimes, the risk of re-arrest was even higher — about five times — for those with low ACC activity. However, because only a few offenders committed violent crimes after release, the researchers could not assess the risk for violence properly. About 53% of the sample was re-arrested during the four year study period, but minor parole and probation violations were not counted.

The results suggest that such brain activity can be a reliable predictor of recidivism, which can have profound implications for rehabilitation strategies. “It’s exciting because it is so incrementally useful above and beyond other measures,” says lead author Kent Kiehl, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.  For example, ACC activity predicted recidivism better than simply scoring the participants on their impulse control task performance.

“It’s proof of concept research,” says Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not associated with the study but has worked with the authors on other projects.

Kiehl and his colleagues found that once they combined the results from brain scans along with information about psychopathy and other risk factors, their ability to determine which convicts were at highest risk of re-arrest improved even more. And that has implications for treatment. “We know there are certain types of treatment that could increase activity here,” he says.

During the study, for example, the inmates had to learn to suppress the learned response to press the key, an action that normally boosts activity in the ACC. So it’s possible that training on such tasks might increase activity in the ACC and therefore could be useful in treating deviant behavior. While such simple self control training might seem trivial, some research suggests that helping inmates to master even this basic type of performance might help them to better inhibit other ingrained impulsive behaviors— like those that lead to relapse in addictions or re-committing crimes.

As exciting as that potential is, don’t expect “Minority Report”- style crime prediction any time soon.“It’s not ready to be rolled out,” says Kiehl. “Other researchers need to replicate the results and the scanning strategy needs to be tested on a larger sample and with different populations.”

And as with any predictive screen, it’s not foolproof. Some of the inmates with low ACC activity did not get re-arrested. In order to be used in court, any scanning data would have to have a known error rate, which requires more intensive research. “We are skeptical that emerging neurobiological markers could ever independently outperform these existing tools,” like prior history and psychological tests, the authors write.

Yet both Morse and Kiehl anticipate brain scans could become one of the tools that the justice system relies upon to predict re-arrest. They see using brain scans as no different than behavioral measures like psychological tests or prior offense history to predict recidivism, although Kiehl concedes that “Brain scans seem more scary because it seems like reading minds.”

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One issue that additional research will have to address is whether the reduction in ACC activity is indeed linked with a greater tendency to re-offend— or simply with higher odds of being caught. This problem has hampered prior research on predicting violence.

Still, the possibility that brain activity could predict, and possibly explain criminal behavior should create rich new opportunities for understanding such deviance and ultimately lead to more effective rehabilitation efforts.

38 comments
cvbcvb
cvbcvb

"Minority report" is not a science fiction anymore. PreCrime police force is on the way

JoelleEstherBenyayer
JoelleEstherBenyayer

well yep i got personaly a gadget virutual communication with iranian female french from defense in frejus ayoung cheat head difficult to wrote ask the dutch police how it work french defense in frejus iranian female have robbe to dutch police hi babe why are we in touch by the way to you three play music wrote music grave music or copy music and news well you never know the french dutch muslms god

Butcher Clomu
Butcher Clomu

THAT IS A LIE. it has to do with the person being active in any thang but a corner with a doctor poking him. And first you should of determand the family if they are actoualy related and what natour of crime happend when a chiled and who still lengers around that pokes the "crimanal" and if they are truly from the USA. All this is importent to mantain some thing that was lost as a chiled..The doctors might have a good plan but it will get set aside and turn back into where it was..BRAIN ACTIVATY HU. HA,HA NOW THE SHRINK IS RUNNING TO THE EXRAY MACHINE do you remember if ever going to the shrink? i did not help unless she danced for you....i think it's job sacurity to them...OR if you did get into truble that has a out date. do what your peroll officer tell's to do.for most get a JOB no matter what it is COMUNITY SERVICE UNTILL YOU BECOME A HUMAN BEING..no pun intended but i was an animal for a while but i made it with out a strike. 13 years ago.

Celtic
Celtic

Hmmm. Lets see. 53% you say. Wow. That's a bit better than flipping a coin.

Tim Prey
Tim Prey

next step wouldnt be too much different than the Minority Report movie

Hector Jorge Donato
Hector Jorge Donato

The terminology; delinquency or criminality with respect to human behavior is not easy to detect; When one person to another is accused too and no make an demand then these pretending; State officials or company personnel you might think that there is no criminality That ,are persons normal and of putting hands in the fire for them. - However in a corporate system that is living nowadays a murderer or criminal has a salary, is respected, and is a person with solvency economic.-

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

Translating into those with increased drug activity, whether legal or not. Lipids, endorphines, electricity alone only alters it so many ways. Head trauma, but that might otherwise be noticable if it becomes that potent of a motivational force.

Amy Copley Chastain
Amy Copley Chastain

Since when has the criminal justice system cared about rehabilitation?

21stcentury
21stcentury

Perhaps criminals with greater impulse control are clever enough not to get caught, not the same as not being a recidivist. Do prisons invest in impulse control counseling for inmates? It's a big part of drug rehab programs.


kreal
kreal

@TIME this is why Obama is dropping money for brain mapping Israeli military has been trying to read thoughts with computers for a decade

ONEVOICEWV
ONEVOICEWV

@TIME @ONEVOICEWV: NATIONAL Rx Summit in Orlando! People coming together to address drug EPIDEMIC... WHERE IS THE PRESS?

KokoLiri
KokoLiri

@TIME fMRI is very cool, but can still not predict the future.

KokoLiri
KokoLiri

@TIME so headline should be - 'Brain scans show some criminals have less activation in anterior cingulate cortex during inhibitory task'

MissJenn610
MissJenn610

@TIME Starting to sound like Minority Report...Somebody call Tom Cruise. Never mind. He's crazy.