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Mapping the Human Brain to Evaluate Motive - With Grant Funds, Researchers Study Intersection of Law and Neuroscience

Publication Date: 
November 29, 2007
The Los Angeles Daily Journal
Ryan Oliver

The Daily Journal reports on a three-year $10 million grant funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to address the complicated legal, ethical and scientific questions arising from breakthroughs in neuroscience, and quotes Henry T. "Hank" Greely who co-chairs the group of scholars focusing on brain abnormalities:

Stanford University law professor Hank Greely said the project is bound to stir up an old philosophical debate over how much people can be held responsible for actions if those actions are caused, in part, by forces beyond their control.

But like most of the law professors involved with the project, Greely said he takes a more conservative view of neuroscience's impact on the court.

"I don't think this will redefine criminal responsibility," he said. "But it may have some play around the margin. We will be able to define the line of responsibility better."

The justice system, Greely noted, has had to grapple with questions of responsibility in the face of neuroscience several times...


Greely said that scanning technology and scientists' understanding of it has improved a lot... Courts soon will be confronted with more-sophisticated arguments to explain a wide variety of behaviors from violence and lying to pedophilia.

"For example, if someone says they are having hallucinations, we may soon be able to tell if someone is actually having hallucinations or not," he said. "Part of the project is to discuss or clarify how the law should deal with that."


By early next year, Greely said, his group expects to come up with ideas for specific research that could be funded with the MacArthur grant. He hopes to have that money in the hands of researchers by May.

The project likely will focus on the criminal justice system, but civil cases could be affected, as well, Greely said. Neuroscientists are studying how to map the brain's response to pain, he said. Such an ability could be important in personal-injury lawsuits or workers' compensation cases, he said.