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

Bioethics Commission Plays Early Role in BRAIN Initiative

Calling for the integration of ethics across the life of neuroscientific research endeavors, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released volume one of its two-part response to President Obama’s request related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The report, Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, includes four recommendations for institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research including government agencies and other funders.

“Neurological conditions—which include addiction, chronic pain, dementia, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, stroke, and traumatic brain injury, among other conditions—affect more than one billion people globally. Neuroscience has begun to make important breakthroughs, but given the complexity of the brain, we must better understand it in order to make desired progress,” said Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Bioethics Commission Chair. “But because research on our brains strikes at the very core of who we are, the ethical stakes of neuroscience research could not be higher.  Ethicists and scientists should be together at the table in the earliest stages of research planning fostering a fluent two-way conversation.  Too often in our nation’s past, ethical lapses in research have had tragic consequences and derailed scientific progress.” Continue reading »

Is it Time to Pull the Plug on “Brain Death”?

Defined as the permanent cessation of all brain activity as measured by clinical and laboratory tests, brain death is currently accepted in all 50 states and within the context of all major religions.

The concept of brain death itself is a consequence of technology.  After the development of positive-pressure ventilators, a patient’s respiration and circulation could be sustained long after the termination of all brain activity.   Thus, there was an urgent need to clarify what constitutes death. By returning to the biophilosophical concept of the loss of an organism as a whole, medical researchers established brain death as the primary clinical determination.

However, once declared brain dead, a patient can still retain some features associated with the living, such as a beating heart.

Among general audiences, these superficial signs of life can cause confusion. Unlike a persistent vegetative state, in which a patient’s brain stem is still functioning – allowing for the patient to breathe on their own and potentially recover – brain death is irrecoverable. This crucial distinction can be made painstakingly clear via a series of clinical tests, but to a lay observer, the differences can be imperceptible. Continue reading »

CLBB to lead Pain, Juvenile Justice Interdisciplinary Working Groups

Our understanding of the neuroscientific underpinnings of the human brain is evolving at a rapid rate. This ongoing development presents many challenges for its timely, successful translation into law and policy. In 2014-2015, the Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior, through the support of the Harvard Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, will convene faculty working groups to incite scholarship into two translational gaps in neuroscience and law: pain and suffering, and the juvenile brain. The groups, drawing from the Harvard Law and Medical Schools and Harvard University Psychology Faculty, will convene for ongoing expert faculty meetings, academic publications, and a public seminar event. The groups represent CLBB’s initial ventures into pain and juvenile justice as ongoing program areas. Continue reading »

A Polygraph Primer: What Litigators Need to Know

By Ekaterina Pivovarova, PhD, Judith Edersheim, JD, MD, Justin Baker, MD, PhD, Bruce Price, MD | The Jury Expert | May 2014

The polygraph, an instrument designed to identify deception, first entered the American courtroom more than 90 years ago. In Frye v. United States (1923), the D.C. Circuit Court excluded expert testimony about the findings from a polygraph. The court noted that the “systolic blood pressure deception test, ” the polygraph, had “not yet gained such standing and scientific recognition among physiological and psychological authorities as would justify the courts in admitting expert testimony.…”

Since then, the polygraph and its modern incarnations have continued to incite legal controversy and debate. The public, press and fact finders are no less fascinated with the polygraph now than they were in the beginning of the twentieth century (Keeler, 1930; Myers, Latter, & Abdolahhi-Arena, 2006). Overwhelmingly, courts have banned results of polygraph testing in criminal proceedings (United States v. Scheffer, 1998). The reasoning for this has largely centered on lack of general acceptance in the scientific community and concerns about prejudicial impact of the findings on the jury (Myers et al., 2006). Nevertheless, the polygraph continues to be widely used by law enforcement, in employment screenings, and for specific types of forensic assessments, such as sexual offender evaluations (Grubin, 2010). Accordingly, litigators, corporate counsel, and trial consultants need to have a current understanding of the scientific underpinnings of the polygraph, the improvements to the instrument throughout the decades, and the ongoing controversies regarding the interpretation of results.

Read the full article here.

Imaging the Brain, Changing Minds: Chronic Pain Neuroimaging and the Law

On April 24-25, 2014, the symposium, Imaging the Brain, Changing Minds: Chronic Pain Neuroimaging and the Law, took place at the University of Maryland School of Law.

An interdisciplinary collaboration between pain neuroimaging researchers, legal decision-makers, and legal scholars, the symposium’s goal was to create dialogue between these fields, and to make legal actors aware of recent, breakthrough work in neuroimaging that has led to a paradigm shift in understanding chronic pain.  This new science may have the potential to change legal doctrines and shift legal and cultural norms about chronic pain diseases and their sufferers.  Doing so responsibly requires understanding the potential of the science, and also its limits.

CLBB Faculty member, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, and pain expert Amanda Pustilnik, JD, was an organizer for this roundtable. The symposium was attended by a selection of law and neuroscience scholars, including Hank Greely, Martha Farah, and the Hon. Nancy Gertner, a CLBB Faculty member and Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School. Greely delivered the keynote, “Neuroimaging, Mind Reading, and the Courts;” the video is available here.

This event was jointly sponsored by the Law & Health Care Program at University of Maryland Carey Law School, the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.