Are you guilty of a crime? A brain scan may help determine the truth

University of South Carolina and University of Pennsylvania have both reported increased accuracy in brain scanning and entrepreneurs Joel Huizenga and Steven Laken hope to capitalize on their good fortune by offering lie-detecting services to government agencies and others who are interested in proving their innocence. Laken hopes to offer the fMRI lie-detecting services with crimes of a civil nature, like libel, slander, and fraud, where the issue is one person’s word against another; Laken also sees its uses in employee screening by government agencies. The labs at the universities both use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to study the brain and early research indicates that when the fMRI detects tiny changes in blood flow in certain areas in the brain, those areas work harder when a person is lying.

Of course, the research is in the early stages and there needs to be more experimenting using the technique in other labs as well as with seasoned criminals in order to determine the effectiveness of the fMRI’s ability to detect lies. Malcolm Ritter, a writer for the Associated Press, volunteered for the brain scan at the University of South Carolina. The lab technicians had him, prior to the brain scan, take a ring or a watch from one of the drawers in the room and place it with his belongings. He was then asked a series of routine questions in order to determine his baseline for the fMRI and then was asked which item he stole from the drawer. Ritter lied on the brain scan, as did the 31 volunteers in Dr. Mark George of University of South Carolina’s study. A computer compares the truthful responses to the questions regarding the crime itself. The computer, using the fMRI data, was able to detect the lies in 28 out of the 31 volunteers but those volunteers were not criminals and it will be interesting to see what impact that has on the actual findings. One of the reasons this study may not represent true findings is the lack of actual punishment. Dr. George’s next study will focus more on the real-life consequences associated with lying, which will be funded by the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute.

Although the doctor in charge of the study, Mark George, indicates that the brain scan should not be an issue of invasion of privacy because of the necessity for the complete cooperation of the volunteer, there are issues that must be addressed. What about those individuals coerced into taking the test? Or what if, in the course of the test, another crime that you committed was to come to light? Can charges be brought against you? It seems there is still research that must be conducted before it can be utilized in the court system. Hopefully, we will learn more about the accuracy and reliability of the fMRI with detecting lies before we use it in trials where individuals can be sentenced to prison or to death.