Researchers show limits of brain scans as legal evidence

May 10, 2010 BY ADAM GORLICK

(PhysOrg.com) -- Two psychologists and a law expert were able to see how much information about memories can be seen in brain activity.

It can happen in any criminal trial. A witness is being questioned about her recollection of a suspect, an event or a key piece of evidence. She insists the details are right, but the jury is missing solid proof that her memory is accurate.

What if there were a way to peek inside her brain and read her memory to see if she was telling the truth? A judge in India did that in 2008 when he convicted a woman of murdering her fiancé based partly on brain scan evidence that gauged her ability to remember details of the crime.

As technology allows scientists and investigators to glean more about how we record, store and recall memories, Stanford and law experts are studying how reliable that information is. So far, they say it's not accurate enough to be used as legal evidence.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of healthy adults, the researchers were able to measure how strong their subjects' sense of a specific memory was. But they could not tell for sure whether the memories themselves were based on a recollection of an actual experience.

"We were able to differentiate between rich recollection, strong familiarity or a weak memory," said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology who conducted the experiments with postdoctoral fellow Jesse Rissman and law Professor Hank Greely. "But there was very weak evidence that what the subject actually experienced was etched in the brain."

The team's findings are being published in this week's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the first of two experiments, the researchers had 16 subjects study photographs of 200 faces. During an fMRI scan, the subjects were shown each of those 200 faces again, plus another 200 faces they had never seen. Every time someone looked at a face, they were asked to rate how well they recognized that image.

"Based on these patterns, we could decode the subject's sense of recognition with remarkable accuracy," Rissman said.

But the researchers found that memories could play tricks on people's brains. Sometimes a picture of a face would spark a memory even if the subject had never before seen that face, and in these cases the brain activity pattern closely mimicked that of a real memory. In other words, the brain scans were not very good at distinguishing between true and false memories.

A second experiment was designed to gauge people's memories when they weren't being asked to remember anything. In contrast to the first experiment, when the subjects weren't prompted to say how well they remembered a face they were shown, their brain activity failed to indicate whether or not they had a memory related to the image.

"We are by no means at the level you'd want for a technique that might be used in a courtroom to probe a defendant's and uncover the truth about his or her past experiences," Rissman said. "Brain imaging analysis will definitely develop, but I'm doubtful that the technology will ever be capable of providing a 100 percent reliable determination of whether somebody actually had a particular experience."

Explore further: Researchers reveal pathway that contributes to Alzheimer's disease

More information: PNAS paper: www.pnas.org/content/early/201… /1001028107.abstract

Related Stories

A mind at rest strengthens memories, researchers find

Jan 27, 2010

Our memories are strengthened during periods of rest while we are awake, researchers at New York University have found. The findings, which appear in the latest issue of the journal Neuron, expand our understanding of how ...

Brain's memory storing is studied

Mar 01, 2006

University of California-Irvine scientists have identified the neural activity that occurs when the brain "sets the stage" for retaining a memory.

Recommended for you

Neurons express 'gloss' using three perceptual parameters

Sep 19, 2014

Japanese researchers showed monkeys a number of images representing various glosses and then they measured the responses of 39 neurons by using microelectrodes. They found that a specific population of neurons ...

Scientists show rise and fall of brain volume

Sep 19, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—We can witness our bodies mature, then gradually grow wrinkled and weaker with age, but it is only recently that scientists have been able to track a similar progression in the nerve bundles ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

THoKling
not rated yet May 10, 2010
The problem is a brain stores information regardless if it originated externally or internally. People who visualise practicing dunk-shots perform just as well as those who practice using the real thing.