Brain Scans Predict Criminals’ Likelihood of Rearrest

By Lisa Raffensperger | March 26, 2013 9:03 am

It’s reminiscent of the film Minority Report, but it’s true: A simple brain test performed on prisoners can predict their likelihood of committing another crime.

Various psychological and biological factors are already used to judge, for instance, whether an arrested individual is granted bail or the nature of their sentence, if convicted. Age and sex are taken into account, as are behavioral qualities such as impulsivity and drug use. At the moment, however, these character traits are assessed by personality tests. Neuroscientists have long suspected that measuring the brain signal associated with these traits would increase the tests’ reliability.

To test this theory, researchers studied a group of 96 male prisoners in New Mexico just before their release. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team scanned the prisoners’ brains while they completed a computer task measuring impulsivity: They had to quickly and accurately respond when the letter X flashed onscreen, but if it was a letter K, they had to restrain themselves from responding.

Researchers were particularly interested in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is known to be linked to behavioral regulation and self-control.

Four years after these prisoners’ release, the researchers checked their arrest records. Over half had been rearrested—and their earlier brain scans were telling. Men who had shown lower ACC activity were significantly more likely to be rearrested, and they were rearrested sooner. A man in the lower half in terms of ACC activity had a 60 percent likelihood of rearrest, while those with above-average ACC activity had only a 46 percent likelihood. And the men with low ACC activity were rearrested seven months earlier on average. These numbers held true even after the researchers accounted for other risk factors such as age, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychopathic traits, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers caution that their study doesn’t support predictions at the individual level, just group tendencies. And even if tests became robust enough to predict one person’s behavior, there are serious ethical issues involved in tying biology to behavior. The most likely use of such tests, authors say, is to complement existing assessments in low-stakes decisions such as the best course of treatment for an offender, rather than decisions like sentencing.

Image courtesy Glynnis Jones / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Pat Patterson

    Yay for being guilty BEOFRE you are innocent. Minority Report comes to mind. Pre-cog crime.

    This is awful.

    Welcome to the Global Tyrannical Police State. Get out of the cities while you can and avoid this ridiculous display being non-human.

  • Canucker

    Oh come on. 50% were rearrested and of those the split based on ACC was 60% and 46%? That may be statistically significant but it is practically no better than flipping a coin. There again, this is PNAS.

  • Buddy199

    The researchers caution that their study doesn’t support predictions at the individual level, just group tendencies. And even if tests became robust enough to predict one person’s behavior, there are serious ethical issues involved in tying biology to behavior
    No kidding. Would it be ethical to consider race in this way?

  • Cody Reisdorf

    Sounds like the next step should be figuring out why some people have higher or lower ACC activity, and then learning how to help promote ACC activity in those with less.

    Everyone seems to have jumped straight to the Minority Report type scenario, but I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to use this information without pre-judging anyone.

    I think the best way to stop crime before it happens wouldn’t be to preemptively arrest people but rather to figure out how to educate them & enable them to provide for themselves everything they need, to make the incentives for good behavior to so heavily outweigh any perceived benefits of crime that they aren’t interested in committing crime.

    I suppose there might be some people who are physically incapable of learning to behave that way, but when we’re confident that’s their problem we usually classify such people as mentally ill and get them a different kind of help…

  • Bill Evans

    Excellent comment, Cody.

    Hooray to researchers trying to decode the brain, and boo to those who fear or dismiss it.

    Who can honestly believe that a better understanding how biology relates to and affects behavior, a “bad” thing? Who can honestly stand behind our current judicial system dart-board of sentencing, and lack of treatment for those who suffer brain deficits? Who thinks waiting for the mentally ill to commit crimes, then jailing or killing them, is a superior approach?

    Brain research, while no longer an infant, is learning to crawl. Mistakes will be made, faulty paths attempted. Researchers are not making ethical decisions for us, but trying to understand. Politicians and the populace who will judge these faltering attempts, as too dangerous to explore, can only impede progress.

  • Bobareeno

    Keep at it guys!! Only another 100 years or so before we can definitely tease a reliable percentage out of these MRI studies!! Don’t forget to use an electron microscope to read the images in greater detail. And maybe we can teach future humans to be more static in their brain activities. Way too many variables in our current brain waves and structures.


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