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Brain Scans Could Predict Future Criminal Behavior

Neuroimaging data could help researchers predict whether a criminal will break the law again once released from prison, according to a new study.

The study looked at impulsive and antisocial behavior. It focused on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that deals with regulating behavior and impulsivity.

The ACC is “associated with error processing, conflict monitoring, response selection, and avoidance learning,” according to the researchers. People who have damage in this area have been shown to produce changes in disinhibition, apathy, and aggressiveness. Indeed, ACC-damaged patients have been classed in the ‘acquired psychopathic personality’ genre, researchers said in the study.

The study demonstrated that inmates with relatively low activity in the ACC were twice as likely to re-offend than inmates with high activity in this region.

For the study, researchers examined 96 male inmates between the ages of 20 and 52 who volunteered to participate. The men were followed up to four years after they were released from prison.

Researchers used the Mind Research Network’s Mobile Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) System to collect neuroimaging data while the inmates completed a series of mental tests.

“People who reoffended were much more likely to have lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortices than those who had higher functioning ACCs,” Kiehl said.

“This means we can see on an MRI a part of the brain that might not be working correctly — giving us a look into who is more likely to demonstrate impulsive and anti-social behavior that leads to re-arrest.”

“These results point the way toward a promising method of neuroprediction with great practical potential in the legal system,” said Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Philosophy Department at Duke University, who collaborated on the study.

“These findings have incredibly significant ramifications for the future of how our society deals with criminal justice and offenders,” said senior author Dr. Kent A. Kiehl, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

“Not only does this study give us a tool to predict which criminals may reoffend and which ones will not reoffend, it also provides a path forward for steering offenders into more effective targeted therapies to reduce the risk of future criminal activity.”

“Much more work needs to be done, but this line of research could help to make our criminal justice system more effective.”

Kiehl added he is now working on developing treatments that increase activity within the ACC to attempt to treat the high-risk offenders.

The study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Duke University

Brain Scans Could Predict Future Criminal Behavior

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Brain Scans Could Predict Future Criminal Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 31 Mar 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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