The guilty mind: What if a brain scan could catch a murderer? 'Brain fingerprinting' measures neural response to images from a crime scene. Ethicists fear it as a new tool of social control
Sometime on the night of July 21, 1977, someone shot John Schweer to death on a railroad track in Council Bluffs, Iowa. His body lay a short footchase from the car dealership where he worked as a night watchman. The police believe whoever killed Mr. Schweer escaped the scene by running across a field overgrown with tall grass and weeds as tall as a man's waist.
This dense foliage, the shotgun blast, Mr. Schweer's crumpled body and many other aspects of the murder must be imprinted deep in the grey folds of someone's brain. Crime leaves tracks.
Four months after the killing, police arrested 17-year-old Terry Harrington, a black college student, largely on the testimony of a dubious witness.
Harrington claimed he was at a concert 30 kilometres away -- an alibi his friends and football coach confirmed. Even so, he was convicted of murder. Mr. Schweer was a white, retired police officer. The jurors wanted swift justice; they sentenced Harrington to life with no parole.
Now, 26 years later, Harrington's hopes for exoneration rest on a witness that scientists say cannot lie but police could not interview. His brain.
While the world has heard plenty about genetics, cloning and stem cells, the field of neuroscience has been quietly making giant leaps forward. Brain scientists have -- in some cases, literally -- been gazing at our naked thoughts without any legal or ethical framework to guide their investigations.
"Gene therapy, stem cells, genetics of mental illnesses -- those [treatments] will not be here tomorrow, they will take a while," says Remi Quirion, scientific director of the federal Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction.
"But in terms of brain imaging ... that's already there. There are companies out there that are starting to promote these techniques to the U.S. government to counter terrorism." He continues: "With these type of technologies, someday you could scan brain activity without necessarily having to ask the person for permission. Say, at the customs office or someplace like that."
Dr. Quirion, a world-renowned Alzheimer's scientist, says brain science is moving much faster than any social dialogue on how it should be used. "Just a few years back, neuroscientists were not thinking about this kind of thing," he says.
The field has progressed so rapidly, he says ethical guidelines are urgently needed because of people like Lawrence Farwell.
Dr. Farwell, a Fairfield, Iowa, neuroscientist who once taught at Harvard Medical School, has patented a technique he calls "brain fingerprinting", which he believes can prove the guilt or innocence of Terry Harrington and others like him.
"If we know the truth, we can allow a person like Terry Harrington to be freed from prison," Dr. Farwell says.
The technique involves monitoring the electrical activity in a person's brain in response to images from a crime.
When Harrington was tested two years ago, the results showed he had no knowledge of 12 salient details -- the tall grass and weeds behind the car lot, for example -- but had six salient details of his alibi recorded in his brain.
In March, 2001, an Iowa District Court judge ruled the science behind brain fingerprinting, a concept called the P-300 response, met the legal standards for admissibility in court. Harrington is appealing his case; a ruling is expected as early as this month.
"When you recognize something significant in the current context, your brain does certain information processing, and that is manifested on the scalp as a P-300," says Dr. Farwell, founder and head of Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, Inc.
"One of the advantages of major crime is that ... it is a significant event in the life of a perpetrator. Even to a serial killer who has killed 50 people, it's still a big event."
Dr. Farwell says brain fingerprinting has potential far beyond the legal system. He says the U.S. military wants to use his process to combat terrorism. According to his company's Web site, brain fingerprinting has enjoyed a 100% success rate in studies conducted with the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.
Dr. Quirion and other leading scientists say such findings are exaggerations.
"There are more and more of these companies interacting with the U.S. government, saying, 'We have new ways to monitor brain function that could help to say, 'This guy is probably lying,' or, 'This guy could be violent,' '" he says.
"One of the dangers is that these tests are not 100% foolproof -- or at least, not in my mind."
The larger issue, of course, is how such techniques will be used when they do become foolproof, and if people could lose their right to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Until recently, brain scientists were hampered by two rigid barriers: the skull and ethics. It's unethical to slice open a living human head to poke around unless the patient is being treated. That's how brain pioneer Dr. Wilder Penfield did business in the 1950s. While operating on the brains of epileptic patients, the Montreal neurosurgeon would nose around. Dr. Penfield found he could elicit responses such as memory, including sound, movement and colour, by stimulating regions of the brain. For the most part, however, neuroscientists were forced to wait until a patient showed up with a tumour or traumatic brain injury to see how it affected behaviour.
This approach is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with 50 billion cellular pieces one motorcycle crash victim at a time.
Those days are gone.
Today, neuroscience has a battery of new imaging technologies to gauge and monitor brain activity. They include magneto-encephalography (MAG) scanning, which measures the brain's magnetic fields, and functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI), which traces the flow of blood around the brain. In short, the skull is no longer a barrier.
Just where that leaves ethics is anyone's guess.
"Say ... we knew what the brain of a child molester or a person with a predilection for abusing children looks like," says Gordon DuVal, a bioethicist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
"Say someone who was 14 years old turns up with that brain. What would we do with that person? I don't know what."
This is not a far-fetched scenario.
Researchers believe they have already found a gene mutation unique to serial child molesters that gives rise to subtle changes in the shape and function of the brain. Genes for suicidal tendency have also been pinpointed. Last year, Stanford University scientists revealed the brain patterns of "slow" children, raising the prospect of giving them special education before they fall behind. Experts believe many aspects of our "selves" may someday be mapped and put to use. But what use? Who decides? And what role will privacy play as science sheds more light on our newly naked brains?
"Say we knew what the brain looked like of a nice person or a generous person or a hard-working person or whatever we think of as good qualities," Dr. DuVal says. "Could an employer use some kind of screening test that let them know for employment, or firing? Would that be a fair thing to do?"
Dr. DuVal and others say brain science has raced far ahead of ethical debate. And, as the global farce over human cloning has shown, it might be futile to create rules so late in the game.
"The horse may have left the barn," he says.
Consider the problem of cognitive enhancement.
Last July, psychiatrists at Stanford University found healthy airline pilots who took a drug that boosts memory in Alzheimer's patients did significantly better in flight simulations. The drug, Aricept, increases the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain. When confronted with emergency situations, new transponder codes and a series of air traffic control commands, the drug-taking pilots were less likely to forget their training after 30 days.
"How should the use of these therapies be regulated in settings beyond aviation or normal ageing, such as chess matches or test-taking among college students?" asks Jerome Yesavage, who led the research, published in the journal Nature Medicine.
Last year, international bridge tournaments made players take urine tests for use of stimulants, and a medicine cabinet full of new mind-enhancing drugs is coming.
For example, Cortex Pharmaceuticals is developing drugs based on ampakine molecules, which can boost signals between brain cell receptors and improve learning capacity. Memory Pharmaceuticals and NeuroLogic are hot on the trail of similar molecules.
"The issue is, Will these kind of drugs be available for everyone in the future or just some happy few?" asks Dr. Quirion, noting that such products are likely to be very expensive.
In a world where rich economies have denied cheap AIDS drugs to Africa, where they could save millions of human lives, it's unrealistic to think people will lose any sleep over an unfair distribution of "smart" drugs. So relatively speaking, the rich will get smarter and the poor will get stupider, a cognitive divide. Of course, this is not different from rich people sending their children to the best schools. Or is it?
Once we begin tampering with the brain, some argue we've gone too far. "Even though the end ... may be the same, say, between education and taking Ritalin to improve classroom performance, there is something very different going on in the second case," says Jason Robert, a professor of ethics at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"People then start to worry, in the same way they worry about genetics, about creating a class of haves and have-nots."
Mr. Robert also wonders about entitlement. If a heart transplant surgeon is entitled to take drugs to sharpen his focus, why not a pilot? Or the prime minister? Why not the guy operating a construction crane with two tonnes of concrete dangling above a city street?
"It becomes a moral mess," he says.
Since our behaviour is based on biology, some philosophers wonder about how the use of such "cogniceuticals" affect our human identity.
Drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft, once prescribed only for depression, are now used to combat obsessive-compulsive behaviour, pre-menstrual stress, anxiety and excessive shyness. Indeed, the British Medical Journal recently noted drug companies are touting serotonin-based drugs -- among others --as treatment for so-called "female sexual dysfunction," a condition many doctors doubt can be cleared up with pills.
"If there is such a thing as a true self, why do we believe we're going to access it more appropriately through pharmaceutical intervention?" Mr. Robert asks.
The Greek historian Pliny said, "The truth will come out in wine," presumably meaning people are more honest when they're drunk. But can the truth also come out in Ritalin, Prozac or Aricept? If drugs can focus our attention, drive away our blues and protect our memories, do they make us more authentic versions of ourselves?
"Is it the case that taking Ritalin as a child is going to prevent the development of an authentic self?" Mr. Robert asks.
"Or is the idea of authenticity of selfhood just a myth, something that we've been comfortable with, but in fact all of this is a construction of genes and environments, and this environment just happens to involve particular pharmacological treatment?"
The idea of "fixing" ourselves doesn't thrill everyone.
Gregor Wolbring, an ethicist and biochemist at the University of Calgary, was born without legs after his mother took thalidomide during her pregnancy. Like many youngsters in his situation, he was fitted with artificial limbs as a child, but chucked them when he got older. "You fix things based on certain assumptions and expectations," says Dr. Wolbring, who heads an organization called the International Centre for Bioethics, Culture and Disability.
He summarizes society's view as: "Anyone who cannot meet those expectations should be fixed."
As artificial limbs, cochlear implants for deaf people, and other tools become more sophisticated, it becomes more difficult to discard them. Parents in some U.S. states have had their children taken away because they would not fit them with cochlear implants. In much the same way, other parents are pressured by teachers to feed their children Ritalin, and people with bipolar disorder are being directed by Canadian courts to take their lithium. "These things are no longer tools; they're becoming an obligation," Dr. Wolbring says.
Neurotechnology is reducing the number of ways it's acceptable to be a person. It is pressuring people like Dr. Wolbring, who calls himself a "non-mainstream body composition," to consider themselves birth defects.
Out of this conviction, he rejects the sophisticated new bionic legs that connect surgically to his nerves. "I'd rather crawl," he says.
Questions about the biological basis of behaviour and personality also play a central role in the criminal justice system.
For example, courts now draw a line between "organic" brain disorders, such as sleepwalking or epilepsy, and behavioural disorders, such as pedophilia.
In 1989, for example, Kenneth Parks was acquitted of murder after he stabbed his mother-in-law to death while he was sleepwalking. His lawyer argued the Toronto man was in a state of "noninsane automatism," and was not aware of his actions. With no free will, he could not be guilty.
But the lines are shifting. As neuroscience delves deeper into the brain's structure, researchers are finding such disorders as pyromania, pedophilia or even sexual sadism are driven by subtle neural abnormalities. For example, researchers say pedophiles may have a gene mutation in their serotonin system that underlies their arousal.
"So the question becomes, if you have an abnormal, pedophile gene, are you therefore not responsible?" asks Dr. John Bradford, head of forensic psychiatry at the Royal Ottawa Hospital.
Dr. Bradford, who has assessed such notorious sexual offenders as Paul Bernardo, says courts may someday take the biological roots of behaviours into account. Consider the nature of sexual sadism, in which people are aroused by the suffering of others. New research shows people with the disorder often have brain damage.
"Nobody is sure why that brain abnormality is there ... but you can see it on an MRI or a CT scan," Dr. Bradford says.
"The right temporal area of the brain is the area that seems to be damaged fairly consistently in sexually sadistic people. Usually this is a part of the brain that is very sensitive to oxygen. So any oxygen deficits in the pre-natal, or natal or immediate post-natal period is going to damage that part of the brain. Again, this [occurs] when a person is an infant and has no control over these events, but later on, this person may commit a sexually motivated homicide. And this is already in the criminal justice arena and is part of the debate right now."
In the United States, this defence has kept some sexual killers off death row. In the future, however, it may come to be regarded much as sleepwalking is today -- as grounds for acquittal.
However, Dr. Bradford notes, people may have pedophiliac genes and compulsive drives to rage or sexual sadism, but they can still exercise control. "Most men have fantasies of rape, but most men don't rape," he says.
"This is an example of volitional control."
Clearly, any debate on neuroethics must address how such brain information is used.
Imagine how a divorce attorney, fighting a custody dispute, would use the information that her client's former husband has a pedophile gene. Should Boy Scout leaders be screened? Priests? How much would a scandal magazine pay to get a hold of Michael Jackson's brain profile?
All of which brings matters back to brain fingerprinting.
Although many reputable scientists, including Dr. Quirion, believe it does not have the 100% reliability that its proponents claim, there is no getting around the fact that such technologies are here to stay. And is this wrong?
"If a person is innocent, they just sit there and they see some words or pictures flash on a screen and they don't even know which ones are relevant to the crime," Dr. Farwell says.
"It's not a highly stressful situation. It can get an innocent person out of the process of investigation and let him get on with his life."
Brain scanning may weed out terrorists by latching on to their "significant memories" of training with explosives, anthrax or other weapons. The question is, who gets to decide which memories to go hunting? If it's OK to screen for secret al-Qaeda codes and techniques, why not memories of snorting cocaine, or sodomy, which is still a crime in some U.S. states?
If society decides these are acceptable uses, that's fine, says Dr. Quirion, but some public debate is needed. These technologies are not futuristic notions; they're here today. "We don't need to alarm anyone," Dr. Quirion says, "but this is something we should be thinking about."