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Brain Scans May Indicate Which Criminals May Be Most Likely to Commit Crimes Again

Update Date: Mar 26, 2013 12:38 PM EDT
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Author Philip K. Dick and other science fiction authors wrangled with the ethics of arresting people who had not yet committed crimes. New research means that might soon be an ethical quandary we might need to soon answer in real life. Recent research has found that scientists may be able to predict which incarcerated individuals will be most likely to commit crimes again after they are released from prison.

According to Nature, Kent Kiehl, from the Mind Research Network in New Mexico, worked with his colleagues to study 96 prisoners. Just before their release, the non-profit performed brain scans on each of them while they were tasked with making quick decisions while avoiding impulsive actions. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI, they looked specifically at the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), which is a section of the brain that controls motor skills and executive functioning, an umbrella term for processes like paying attention, solving problems and planning. After the tests, the researchers tracked the newly released prisoners as they reintegrated themselves into society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the offenders who had low activity in the ACC during the tasks were more likely to be arrested after being released from prison. This correlation was true, even when the researchers controlled for factors like age, substance abuse and psychopathic traits. In fact, men whose scores on the test placed their ACC in the bottom half of the pile were 4.3 times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime and 2.6 times more likely to perform any crime.

For obvious reasons, the findings of the study hold great interest for people who work in law enforcement. However, the study authors proclaim that there is more work that needs to be done in order to make sure that the technique is accurate. They note that their technique can only separate the offenders with the highest risk of performing crimes again from the lowest, which does not make the tool foolproof.

In addition, low ACC can also be a sign of other problems and conditions. Caffeine consumption, increased neuron efficiency, lack of motivation, impulsivity and the health of a person's blood vessels are all related to low ACC - and not all of them are related to crime.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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