It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but it isn't. Scientists are actually conducting brain scans on some prisoners as part of research into predicting possible future criminal behavior. A neuroscientist named Kent Kiehl and his Mind Research Network have used a scanner to study some 3,000 criminals at prisons in New Mexico and Wisconsin in recent years. One of Kiehl's recent research papers finds that prisoners who had a lower amount of a certain brain activity were twice as likely to re-offend as those with a higher amount of that brain activity.
Some see this as a possible breakthrough, but others like Houston forensic psychiatrist Dr. Seth Silverman are more skeptical. "It's not clear if structure, that is abnormalities in the brain, leads to functioning, and that's the problem we have with this (study), is it a red herring," he tells KTRH. Dr. Silverman adds that the research on brain activity fails to consider other factors that often lead to criminal behavior. "It's rare that I've seen a killer who gets beyond the ninth grade, who goes out into the culture and kills, so there could be a lot of people with a lot of different reasons who have these exact same findings, and you don't want to label people," he says. Indeed, the findings in Kiehl's latest paper are only reliant on 96 inmates, and he admits the results are only based on general averages and not a predictor of any individual's behavior.
Dr. Silverman also questions whether these brain tests are ethical or legal. "There was a Supreme Court decision that said you can't do research on prisoners because they can't say no, they have nothing to lose," he says. Kiehl recently told the Los Angeles Times that the tests are only done on inmates who volunteer for them, and each volunteer is paid an hourly stipend and receives a copy of the scan. Ethical or not, Dr. Silverman says the science of predicting future behavior is only in its infancy. "I think we're a long way away from knowing which neurotransmitters in which part of the body are gonna trigger or make it more likely to re-offend."