Legal implications of neuroscience research—Harvard Review of Psychiatry presents update

November 14, 2017

New research on the biological basis of psychiatric disorders has important implications for legal proceedings as well as mental health treatment, according to a special issue on "Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and the Law," presented in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

The special issue seeks "to educate and inform mental health researchers and clinicians about the increasing use of their work in judicial contexts, and to prepare them for the ethical and practical issues that will arise when their work enters the legal arena," write Guest Editors Judith Gallen Edersheim, JD, MD, and Rebecca Weintraub Brendel, MD, JD, of MGH Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Neuroscience and the Law - Update on Four Key Mental Health Topics

The special issue presents expert perspectives on "four central areas" where neuropsychiatric research is rapidly making its way into the courtroom:

  • Addiction. Although substance use disorders raise clear legal issues, there is wide divergence between the medical and legal viewpoints. Ongoing research on the neurobiology of substance abuse raises questions about the legal concepts of "voluntariness" and "choice," with the current focus on addiction as a disease. Insights into the neuroscience of substance use disorders also add to arguments against severe legal penalties for possession and use of illegal drugs.
  • Dementia and Decision Making. Both legal and medical professionals face challenges in assessing the decision-making capability of people with cognitive impairment. Recent studies have shown that patients with dementia have other types of impairment beyond their ability to reason, including deficits in value-based decision making and awareness of their own thought processes (metacognition). Key examples illustrate how these concepts should be used in assessing decision-making capacity.
  • Chronic Pain. New insights into the neurobiology of chronic pain are overturning entrenched legal concepts of a dichotomy between brain and body. Improved understanding of how chronic pain develops and persists has important implications for reforming state and federal disability systems. For mental health professionals, these discoveries also help in understanding the contribution of in patients with mood disorders and/or substance abuse.
  • Behavioral Genetics. Research on genetic factors affecting has implications for understanding the propensity toward violent behavior and susceptibility to . The special issue includes a discussion of how these behavioral genetic discoveries are being introduced in the courtroom, while raising caution about using such evidence in individual criminal cases or litigation.

Drs. Edersheim and Brendel—both trained as attorneys and forensic psychiatrists—emphasize the importance of ensuring that advances in psychiatry and neuroscience research are introduced into in a responsible and accurate way. They conclude, "We hope that these seminal articles will help researchers and clinicians to understand their important role in this process and to prepare themselves to venture into this novel terrain in furtherance of both science and justice."

Click here to read the special issue.

Explore further: Using neuroeconomics to study psychiatry

Related Stories

Using neuroeconomics to study psychiatry

July 19, 2012
Neuroeconomics experts and guest editors of the Biological Psychiatry special issue Carla Sharp, John Monterosso, and P. Read Montague in an introductory paper define neuroeconomics as "an interdisciplinary field that brings ...

New findings on brain functional connectivity may lend insights into mental disorders

August 31, 2017
Ongoing advances in understanding the functional connections within the brain are producing exciting insights into how the brain circuits function together to support human behavior—and may lead to new discoveries in the ...

Borderline personality disorder—as scientific understanding increases, improved clinical management needed

September 8, 2016
Even as researchers gain new insights into the neurobiology of borderline personality disorder (BPD), there's a pressing need to improve diagnosis and management of this devastating psychiatric condition. A scientific and ...

New guidelines discourage use of brain imaging as a 'lie detector' for chronic pain

September 8, 2017
A task force consisting of researchers from around the world and led by a scientist at the Krembil Research Institute in Toronto has released a set of recommendations that advise against the use of brain imaging as a test ...

Mathematical tools improve theory and prediction in psychiatry

August 24, 2017
Recent years have seen an explosion in the use of mathematical models to integrate insights emerging from studies of the brain and behavior. This approach has been used to develop new theoretical perspectives that can enrich ...

The neuroscience of choosing: Can we understand how the brain makes decisions?

September 15, 2011
Although still a young field, research in "decision neuroscience" has exploded in the last decade, with scientists beginning to decipher what exactly is happening in our brains when we are making choices, whether big or small.

Recommended for you

Schizophrenia drug development may be 'de-risked' with new research tool

November 22, 2017
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have identified biomarkers that can aid in the development of better treatments for schizophrenia.

Study finds infection and schizophrenia symptom link

November 22, 2017
If a mother's immune system is activated by infection during pregnancy, it could result in critical cognitive deficits linked to schizophrenia in her offspring, a University of Otago study has revealed.

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.