As brain-imaging studies venture into the minefield of research into criminal psychopathy, a News Feature in this week's Nature (Vol. 410, No. 6826, 15 Mar 2001), explores the scientific, political and social implications of one of the most controversial frontiers of neuroscience.
Several researchers are now beginning to use brain imaging in an attempt to determine what, exactly, is different about the brains of psychopaths. They hope that these studies will lead to a fundamental biological understanding of psychopathy, and perhaps even to pharmacological treatments for a condition that is notoriously resistant to behavioural therapy. Others worry that it may not be possible to draw valid conclusions about a condition as complex as psychopathy from even the most carefully designed neuroimaging studies.
And the stakes for society may be high. In no jurisdiction can a diagnosis of psychopathy currently be used to claim diminished responsibility. In the United States, prosecutors use such diagnoses as arguments against rescinding a death sentence. Throw brain imaging into the mix, and it might be seized on as providing a simple marker of psychopathy — potentially biasing life-or-death judgements.
(C) Nature press release.
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