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Can we predict recidivism with a brain scan?

Could monitoring the activity of a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) help law enforcement officials predict which violent criminals are likely to re-offend?  A recent study out of the Mind Research Network says maybe so.

Kent Kiehl, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, and colleagues examined nearly 100 adult male criminal offenders.  Each study participant had their brain scanned while doing a number of different cognitive tests–and was followed up to four years after being released from prison.

Kiehl and colleagues found that study participants who later found themselves back on the wrong side of the law were much more likely to have lower activity in the ACC than those who managed play it straight. 

The ACC has been linked to a wide variety of interesting behaviors including conflict monitoring, avoidance learning, inhibition and error processing.  So Kiehl argues that re-offenders may simply have greater difficulty inhibiting impulsive and bad behavior.  In response to the results, some have suggested that ACC monitoring can help law enforcement predict which perps are more likely to re-offend, refining the criminal justice system.  Kiehl, on the other hand, is interested in developing treatments that target the ACC and may help criminals stay on the straight and narrow.

There have been a lot of studies like this in the past decade–and, to be honest, they worry me.  They are released to big headlines and big promises.  Frankly, I’m not sure they can deliver–at least in the way we think they should.  (Civil confinement laws, anyone?)  First of all, 96 participants is large for an fMRI study, I’ll admit.  But what kind of ACC activity might we see in 96 random non-criminals?  Perhaps the same kinds of patterns–it’s hard to know.  Environment is also important.  Sociology and psychology studies have also shown how important environment is to re-offending.  If you find yourself back in the same neighborhood, with the same criminal crew, you have a high chance of re-offending whether your ACC gets a lot of blood flow or not.  And, then, of course, just because someone hasn’t been arrested again doesn’t mean they haven’t re-offended.  This is an important point.  It’s possible that many of the participants that showed higher ACC activity are simply better at not getting caught.  With so many factors at play, determining what is behind this difference in ACC activation is a tricky thing at best.

Studies like these provide a lot more questions than answers for me.  And I don’t think we should be giving them much weight.  At least not at this stage.

What do you think?  Can we really predict something as complex as recidivism using a brain scan? 

Photo credit:  BortN66/

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