Can A Brain Scan Predict Your Future Criminality?

Brain scans revealed which prisoners got picked up again after their release

The orange dot on the right is the anterior cingulate cortex.
The orange dot on the right is the anterior cingulate cortex. Michael Minzberg

Just by scanning a convicted prisoner’s brain, research might be able to determine whether they’re likely to re-offend.

Nature writes that the new research, headed by University of New Mexico neuroscientist Eyal Aharoni, drew on the functional magnetic resonance scans of 96 inmates about to released from prison. The scientists kept tabs on these participants and saw what happened:

The scans focused on activity in a section of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a small region in the front of the brain involved in motor control and executive functioning.

…Among the subjects of the study, men who had lower ACC activity during the quick-decision tasks were more likely to be arrested again after getting out of prison, even after the researchers accounted for other risk factors such as age, drug and alcohol abuse and psychopathic traits. Men who were in the lower half of the ACC activity ranking had a 2.6-fold higher rate of rearrest for all crimes and a 4.3-fold higher rate for nonviolent crimes.

The researchers, says Nature, see their new-found association between activity in the brain’s ACC and crime as a tantalizing-but-tenuous link: “the authors themselves stress that much more work is needed to prove that the technique is reliable and consistent, and that it is likely to flag only the truly high-risk felons and leave the low-risk ones alone.” If anything, the scientists, spearheaded by the University of New Mexico’s Kent Kiehl, want to see the technique used only when making decisions of low consequence. They don’t a prisoner being granted or denied parole because of how their brain lit up during a brain scan.

The study builds on the imaging work of Kiehl, described in the New Yorker a few years ago, a scientist known for shirking the ivory tower in his work to understand criminal psychopathy.

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