News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

Courage of Conviction

By Virginia Gewin | Nature | October 15, 2015

In October 2006, Bradley Waldroup attacked his estranged wife with a machete and shot her friend to death. In the subsequent trial, his defence attorney argued that Waldroup had the ‘warrior’ gene — a genetic variant that has been linked to aggression. As a result, the defence argued, he was less able to control his behaviour than are people who do not have the variant.

Although he had been charged with first-degree murder of the friend and attempted first-degree murder of his wife, Waldroup was convicted in 2011 of voluntary manslaughter and attempted second-degree murder, and received a 32-year sentence. Had he been found guilty of the more-serious charges, he would have faced the death penalty. Waldroup’s conviction was due, at least in part, to the testimony of forensic psychiatrist William Bernet of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. News stories at the time quoted jurors as saying that the genetic evidence persuaded them that Waldroup could not fully control his actions. Bernet’s research had linked the genetic variant and a history of abuse during childhood—both of which Waldroup had—to an increased likelihood of violent behaviour.

The outcome outraged many in the US legal and scientific communities, who considered the genetic link much too distant to be used to establish guilt. “The leap from population studies of the ‘warrior gene’ to a single man and a single gene variant was absurd,” says Judith Edersheim, a lawyer-turned-psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. And the trial is not the only example of what she describes as “neuroscience run amok in the courtroom”. Continue reading »

A Sore Thing

Editorial | Nature | 25 February 2015

This editorial comes to publication at the same time as the Nature news piece “Neuroscience in Court: The Painful Truth.” The piece featured Amanda Pustilnik, the 2014-2015 Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience at CLBB and The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, the CLBB Pain & Suffering Working Group, and their recent Symposium.

Injuries and illness evoke sympathy, so why do we find it so hard to appreciate another’s pain? Why, as William Shakespeare observed, when we encounter: “A wretched soul, bruised with adversity” do “We bid be quiet when we hear it cry”? One answer is that there is no objective way to measure pain. This is especially true for the enduring nature of chronic pain, when the original physical injury — if there was one — is long gone. Continue reading »

Neuroscience in Court: The Painful Truth

By Sara Reardon | Nature | 25 February 2015

This article features Amanda Pustilnik, the 2014-2015 Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience at CLBB and The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Pustilnik’s involvement in the CLBB Pain & Suffering Working Group and their recent Symposium is cited. Nature also published an editorial on pain imaging in the same issue.

Annie is lying down when she answers the phone; she is trying to recover from a rare trip out of the house. Moving around for an extended period leaves the 56-year-old exhausted and with excruciating pain shooting up her back to her shoulders. “It’s really awful,” she says. “You never get comfortable.”

In 2011, Annie, whose name has been changed at the request of her lawyer, slipped and fell on a wet floor in a restaurant, injuring her back and head. The pain has never eased, and forced her to leave her job in retail.

Annie sued the restaurant, which has denied liability, for several hundred thousand dollars to cover medical bills and lost income. To bolster her case that she is in pain and not just malingering, Annie’s lawyer suggested that she enlist the services of Millennium Magnetic Technologies (MMT), a Connecticut-based neuroimaging company that has a centre in Birmingham, Alabama, where Annie lives. MMT says that it can detect pain’s signature using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures and maps blood flow in the brain as a proxy for neural activity. Continue reading »