Neuroscience Goes to Court: Can Brain Scans Be Used as Lie Detectors?

By Andrew Moseman | May 18, 2010 4:26 pm

MRIBrainMay5Not just yet.

The day probably will come when functional MRI brain scans become viable evidence in American courts, but thanks to a ruling in a Brooklyn case this week, that day is yet to come.

DISCOVER covered the details of the case two weeks ago—a woman sued her former employer claiming she was treated poorly after complaining of sexual harassment, and wanted fMRI scans admitted as evidence to validate the credibility of a witness. But Judge Robert H. Miller has now denied the request under New York State’s Frye test, which says, among other things, that expert testimony is only admissible if it’s widely accepted in the scientific community. As we saw yesterday when we covered the optogenetics tests designed to verify fMRI results, there are still lingering doubts about the technique’s reliability.

Given that there were apparently no other rulings that dealt with the admissibility of fMRI (at least as far as the lawyers could find), Judge Miller declined to be the first to allow it.

He decided that under the Frye test, which is slightly different from the Daubert standard used in federal court, lie detection evidence contravenes a jury’s key right to decide the credibility of witnesses [].

But a similar fMRI battle is under way in Tennessee. Cephos, the same company that provided the brain scans in the Brooklyn case, is involved here, and CEO Steven Laken testified about the validity of his technology on Friday.

Late last year, Cephos was retained by the defendant in the Tennessee case, Lorne Semrau, a psychologist who is fighting charges that he defrauded Medicare and other health insurers with wrongful claims. Semrau’s attorney hopes to introduce fMRI scans performed by Cephos as evidence that he is telling the truth when he says he had no intent to commit fraud [ScienceInsider].

Neurologist Martha Farah traveled to Memphis to watch the proceedings, which she said went back and forth.

After lunch, the court heard from Marcus Raichle, a neuroimaging expert at Washington University in St. Louis. Farah says Raichle raised questions about the strength of evidence that increased activity in the brain regions examined in the Cephos scans are specifically related to deception. The same regions become active during a variety of mental tasks, Raichle said. He also noted that Semrau was in his 60s when the scans were taken, considerably older than the 18- to 50-year-old subjects who participated in the published studies [ScienceInsider].

A decision in the Tennessee case is still forthcoming. It should arrive in a matter of weeks.

Related Content:
Discoblog: I’m Telling the Truth, Your Honor. Just Look at This Brain Scan!
Discoblog: Mind-Reading Machine Puts Woman in Jail For Murder
80beats: Shiny New Neuroscience Technique (Optogenetics) Verifies a Familiar Method (fMRI)

Image: flickr / Everyone’s Idle

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology
  • EquiisSavant


    I think the brain science coming out now about people with Autism will change this result. These articles where brain scans used under either Frye (some state courts such as FL) or Daubert (federal courts) to try to prove truth-telling have been introduced on too specific and narrow grounds — e.g. VMPFC. Autism is a tad bit different – the brain scans prove people with Autism lack Theory of Mind due to over- and under-connectivity of different parts of the Autistic brain, which is wired differently from birth as the developing brain neurons migrate. The brain scan focus for Autism is much more broad than in these cases that have rejected brain scans to prove truth telling that are too narrowly confined to fMRI type scans and the VMPFC. Autism brain scans (PET, SPECT, MRI, fMRI, DTI, EEG, QEEG, MEG) prove people with Autism not only lack of the ToM ability to know what someone else is thinking — the predicate to be able to lie (i.e., to decipher other people’s intent and use it to manipulate the other person’s beliefs), but also that we don’t have effective emotional-limbic circuits, cannot recognize facial expressions, etc.

    In sum, it IS widely accepted in the scientific community that brain scans can show the over- and under-connectitivy in Autistic people, lack of ToM, and impaired limbic-circuits / parts of the brain necessary to process facial recognition, emotions, gestures etc — all of the language and body language necessary to have the ability to lie. In fact, some of the newer articles are saying Autism communication is a different language than English, as much as any foreign language. This is why “weighing credibility” of an Autistic person is NOT an ability a lay witness — including a judge unassisted by expert testimony from a CREDENTIALED AUTISM EXPERT, can achieve absent experts and brain scans. With Autistic people, veracity IS by definition a Frye or Daubert expert witness requirement. And, unlike the above cases involving non-Autistics and VMPFC, if the person in court has Autism, the brain scans WOULD BE ADMISSIBLE under both Frye and Daubert.

    I also predict the floodgates of “ineffective assistance” claims and motions to re-open cases / habeas/ FRCP 60(b)(6) is about to open with Autistic parties in litigation past, present, and future.


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