Neuroscience Goes to Court: Can Brain Scans Be Used as Lie Detectors?

By Andrew Moseman
May 19, 2010 1:26 AMNov 20, 2019 2:57 AM


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Not just yet. The day probably will come when functional MRI brain scans become viable evidence in American courts, but thanks to a ruling in a Brooklyn case this week, that day is yet to come. DISCOVER covered the details of the case two weeks ago—a woman sued her former employer claiming she was treated poorly after complaining of sexual harassment, and wanted fMRI scans admitted as evidence to validate the credibility of a witness. But Judge Robert H. Miller has now denied the request under New York State's Frye test, which says, among other things, that expert testimony is only admissible if it's widely accepted in the scientific community. As we saw yesterday when we covered the optogenetics tests designed to verify fMRI results, there are still lingering doubts about the technique's reliability. Given that there were apparently no other rulings that dealt with the admissibility of fMRI (at least as far as the lawyers could find), Judge Miller declined to be the first to allow it.

He decided that under the Frye test, which is slightly different from the Daubert standard used in federal court, lie detection evidence contravenes a jury’s key right to decide the credibility of witnesses [].

But a similar fMRI battle is under way in Tennessee. Cephos, the same company that provided the brain scans in the Brooklyn case, is involved here, and CEO Steven Laken testified about the validity of his technology on Friday.

Late last year, Cephos was retained by the defendant in the Tennessee case, Lorne Semrau, a psychologist who is fighting charges that he defrauded Medicare and other health insurers with wrongful claims. Semrau's attorney hopes to introduce fMRI scans performed by Cephos as evidence that he is telling the truth when he says he had no intent to commit fraud [ScienceInsider].

Neurologist Martha Farah

traveled to Memphis to watch the proceedings, which she said went back and forth.

After lunch, the court heard from Marcus Raichle, a neuroimaging expert at Washington University in St. Louis. Farah says Raichle raised questions about the strength of evidence that increased activity in the brain regions examined in the Cephos scans are specifically related to deception. The same regions become active during a variety of mental tasks, Raichle said. He also noted that Semrau was in his 60s when the scans were taken, considerably older than the 18- to 50-year-old subjects who participated in the published studies [ScienceInsider].

A decision in the Tennessee case is still forthcoming. It should arrive in a matter of weeks. Related Content: Discoblog: I'm Telling the Truth, Your Honor. Just Look at This Brain Scan!

Discoblog: Mind-Reading Machine Puts Woman in Jail For Murder

80beats: Shiny New Neuroscience Technique (Optogenetics) Verifies a Familiar Method (fMRI)

Image: flickr / Everyone’s Idle

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