SCIENCE
03/27/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Brain Scans Of Criminals Can Predict Recidivism, Study Suggests

Police predicting crimes before they happen? We're not quite there yet, but a new brain study may help law enforcement make an educated guess about which criminals will break the law again.

The study's authors found that brain activity in a small region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) could be used to predict the likelihood of an offender being rearrested later on. What's so special about this region? It's linked to impulse control, and impulsivity is associated with the kinds of bad decisions that send repeat offenders back behind bars, the study's senior author Dr. Kent Kiehl told The Huffington Post.

Kiehl, a neuroscientist at Albuquerque's Mind Research Network, says the brain activity is "the single best measure we've found" to predict impulsivity and, in turn, recidivism.

The authors gave 96 adult male prisoners a simple test to measure their impulse control. The subjects were told to look at a screen that displayed the letters "X" and "K," and asked to press a button as quickly as possible when an "X" appeared. Because "X" came up much more frequently, the subjects got used to pressing the button, and had to suppress that impulse when a "K" appeared.

Meanwhile, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pick up activity in the ACC region, and found that lower levels of activity corresponded with higher error rates on the test and thus higher impulsivity.

Furthermore, the study's authors write:

The odds that an offender with relatively low anterior cingulate activity would be rearrested were approximately double that of an offender with high activity in this region, holding constant other observed risk factors. These results suggest a potential neurocognitive biomarker for persistent antisocial behavior.

With recidivism rates of over 40% in the U.S., such a biomarker could help authorities prioritize at-risk offenders and direct them to specially tailored rehabilitation programs.

Wired points out, however, that brain scans may "never prove useful for assessing the risk to society posed by individual criminals," something Kiehl agrees with. Furthermore, warns international science journal Nature, "the legal and social implications [of the group's research] remain to be explored."

In addition, some have been skeptical of the study's results. "This measure doesn’t seem to do a really great job of picking anybody out much better than chance," Dr. Noah Gray, senior editor at Nature, told HuffPost in an email. And, he continued, "96 individuals is a very small number to boot."

Still, Kiehl remains optimistic that the team's research could have broad applications for treatments and preventative therapies. "A whole new field could be started to try to increase activity [in the anterior cingulate]," he said, adding that he hopes to continue researching the issue, with a new focus on possible treatment options.

A paper on the team's findings, titled "Neuroprediction of future rearrest," was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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