Friday, September 5, 2014

Neuro-Interventions and the Law: Experts to explore ethics and efficacy

Atlanta's Neuro-Interventions and the Law Conference will grapple with thorny issues facing today's legal system. The case of British computer scientist Alan Turing, who submitted to chemical castration in 1952 to avoid imprisonment for homosexuality, exemplifies why a judicial system should take the long view before resorting to drugs or other medical means to alter a person's behavior and biology. Benedict Cumberbatch, above, portrays Turing in the upcoming movie "The Imitation Game."

By Carol Clark

Alan Turing was a hero. He was a mathematician who played a key role in the development of computer science and artificial intelligence and, during World War II, he led Britain’s German code-breaking team, cracking secret messages that gave the Allies an edge in critical battles against the Nazis.

Turing was also a homosexual. In 1952 he was prosecuted for having a sexual relationship with another man, a crime at that time in the United Kingdom. In order to avoid prison, Turing underwent chemical castration: Injections of a drug that took away his libido, while also causing him to have enlarged breasts. His death two years later from cyanide poisoning was ruled a suicide.

The Turing tragedy is just one of many examples of a legal neuro-intervention: The use of a drug or other medical means to change someone’s behavior – sometimes permanently. Despite a problematic past record, a range of such interventions are poised to expand within the legal system and could even become routine.

The conference Neruo-Interventions and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity will gather leading legal scholars, judges, ethicists, neuroscientists and psychologists at Georgia State University September 12-14 to grapple with some of the thorny legal issues being spurred by advances in neuroscience. Registration is free, but there is limited seating.

“Techniques to diagnose and manipulate human behavior and the brain are becoming increasingly sophisticated,” says Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist and director of the Emory Center for Ethics, who will give the introductory remarks for the conference. “We need to develop processes and regulations for how we’re going to use these techniques because they are not going away. In fact, many of them are already in use in criminal proceedings.”

The conference is the first major event of the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium. The Emory Center for Ethics spearheaded the formation of the consortium, which brings together a range of resources from metro-Atlanta’s universities, biotechnology sector and non-profit organizations to explore the implications as neuroscience is set to transform every aspect of our lives, from medicine, to law and civil society.

At least nine U.S. states, including Georgia, have incorporated versions of chemical castration into their laws for those convicted of child sex crimes. While pedophilia is an extreme taboo, critics of chemical castration have called it “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Even if convicted sex offenders are given a voluntary option of a drug treatment in lieu of imprisonment, the ethics are problematic, Wolpe says. “From a government perspective, it would be infinitely cheaper to use drugs instead of incarceration to fix a criminal problem. That kind of incentive would add to the risk of abuse of the power to drug people.”

Another problematic area that Wolpe cites: The practice of drugging criminal defendants suffering from schizophrenia or other mental illnesses so that they achieve a “synthetic competency” to stand trial and, if convicted, perhaps even be executed.

Attorneys are increasingly calling for brain scans as evidence in criminal trials. Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, for instance, is associated with impulsiveness, anger and aggression. Should people diagnosed with TBI receive special consideration if they commit a violent criminal offense?

About 12 percent of U.S. veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from at least mild TBI, according to the Department of Defense. Should vets accused of violent acts be treated differently than other defendants with similar brain injuries?

These questions and dozens of others will be brought up in the conference talks, papers and panel discussions.

It’s important to involve a range of expertise to sort through the complicated neuroethics involved in all of these issues, Wolpe says. “History shows that, over and over again, society has allowed moral suppositions to infiltrate scientific thinking. Years from now, we don’t want to be looking back and saying, ‘How could they have done that?’”

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