"Dr. Howard Markel revisits moments that changed the course of modern medicine on their anniversaries, like the groundbreaking use of anesthesia on a surgical patient on Oct. 16, 1846."
Cerebral spinal fluid found to pump around the brain of sleeping mice, flushing out waste products like a biological dishwasher
It’s not just people who go on trial these days. It’s their brains.
More and more lawyers are arguing that some defendants deserve special consideration because they have brains that are immature or impaired, says Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University who has been studying the use of brain science in court.
About 5 percent of murder trials now involve some neuroscience, Farahany says. “There’s a steady increase of defendants seeking to introduce neuroscience to try to reduce the extent to which they’re responsible or the extent to which they’re punished for a crime,” she says.
Farahany was a featured speaker at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this week. Also featured were several brain scientists who are uncomfortable with the way courts are using brain research.
When lawyers turn to neuroscience, often what’s at issue is a defendant’s competency, Farahany says. So a defense lawyer might argue that “you weren’t competent to have pled guilty because of some sort of brain injury,” she says, or that you weren’t competent to have confessed to a police officer after being arrested.
The approach has been most successful with cases involving teenagers, Farahany says.
"It seems like judges are particularly enamored with the adolescent brain science," she says. "Large pieces of their opinions are dedicated to citing the neuroscientific studies, talking about brain development, and using that as a justification for treating juveniles differently."
In one recent drug possession case, Farahany says, lawyers argued that a young man’s statement to police couldn’t be used even though he’d agreed to talk. His lawyers pointed to studies showing that adolescent brains are especially vulnerable to coercion.
"And it worked," Farahany says. "The prosecution had to basically start over in developing evidence against the juvenile because they couldn’t use his own statements against him."
So judges and juries are being swayed by studies showing that adolescent brains don’t function the same way adult brains do. One study like that was presented at the neuroscience meeting by Kristina Caudle, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, used a technology called functional MRI to look at how the brains of people from 6 to 29 reacted to a threat.
"The typical response — and what you might think is a logical response — is to become less impulsive, to sort of withdraw, to not act when there is threat in the environment," Caudle says. "But what we saw was that adolescents uniquely seemed to be more likely to act. So their performance on this task became more impulsive."
And Caudle found that in adolescents, an area of the brain involved in regulating emotional responses had to work much harder to prevent an impulsive response. This sort of study is great for understanding adolescent brain development in a general way, Caudle says.
"What it doesn’t do is allow us to predict, for example, whether one particular teenager might be likely to be impulsive or to commit criminal behavior," she says.
And Caudle worries that a study like hers could be used inappropriately in court. “Jurors tend to really take things like MRI scans as fact, and that gives me great pause,” she says.
A lot of the neuroscience presented in court is simply unnecessary, says Joshua Buckholtz, a psychologist at Harvard. “Anyone who’s every had a teenager would be able to tell you that their decision-making capacities are not comparable to adults,” he says.
And relying on brain science to defend juveniles could have unexpected consequences, Buckholtz says. For example, he says, if a prosecutor used an MRI scan to show that a 16-year-old who committed a capital crime had a very mature brain, “Would we then insist that we execute that juvenile?”
The task of integrating brain science into the judicial system will in large part be the responsibility of judges, Buckholtz says. And how it works will depend on how well judges understand “what a scientific study is and what it says and what it doesn’t say and can’t say,” he says.
Click through to listen as well (it’s 4 minutes long..)!
The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask, during WWII.
“The mask was designed so children would carry it and wear it as part of a game. This would reduce the fear associated with wearing a gas mask and hopefully, improve their wear time and, hence, survivability.” - Major Robert D. Walk
Q:hello! I'm a high school student who is hoping to major in medicine/biology one day. I was just curious, is there any aspect of history of medical biology you are interested in? or any aspect of medical biology that intrigues you?
I’m interested in human ecology. Our ecology is impacted by disease, development, diet and demography. Diet is the most interesting and integrates with the environment around humans, but unfortunately it usually happens that disease and other human beings account for the lion’s share of our medical issues.
My last post about the ocean-dwelling virus that is likely the world’s most abundant “living” thing could be accurately summarized with this GIF, no?
Might be my favorite picture ever.
A Bacterium on a Diatom on an Amphipod
I see a lot of science stuff, and it’s pretty hard to get me to say “wow” … Just kidding, I say it all the time!
Definitely said it when I saw this brain-melting illustration of the scale differences between the domains of life. In one electron microscope picture!! Just remember, there’s about a trillion of those little bacteria on and in you all the time, just that tiny.
If you like this, you’ll definitely like this interactive “scale of the universe” tool.
(tip o’ the electron microscope to my Twitter friends who shared this)
Good News: Girls Outperform Boys On Science Exam
Bad News: It’s Not Happening Where You Think It Is
15-year-old girls outscored boys on science exams, but not in Western Europe or the Americas. While in Eastern Europe and the Middle East girls abilities seem to exceed those of their male classmates, that doesn’t hold true in the most traditionally “scientific” nations. And that sucks.
We’ve heard this bad news too many times. Girls are underrepresented in the sciences from a young age. Despite their equal interest as youngsters, societal pressures drive a wedge in between them and the performance of their male classmates. When they have to indicate gender on a science exam, they score a full 20% lower than if they don’t. All of this translates to the continued discrimination of of women, overt and incidental, all the way up the ladder of science.
Sometimes I feel tired of repeating it. But we can’t grow tired. As frustrating as it is, every time we continue to call out the problem and raise our fists of fury, it helps raise attention and gain support for change. That change will take a long time, because scientific “establishment” moves like molasses, but only a steady push will make it budge.
I know I’m preaching to the choir when I talk to all of you, but remember this: Every time you share science on Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or wherever you hang out on the internet, then that’s one more chance to reach out and grab someone who doesn’t think they’re “into” science. It’s one more chance to give a 14-year-old girl a boost of confidence (or anyone who needs a boost, for that matter). This isn’t something that can be done by a few. We need to spread this like the most contagious virus the world’s ever seen: An infectious curiosity!
Prenatal medical testing has long been a balance of risk with information. Submit yourself to tests and you can find out about the genetic makeup of your future child, but risk miscarriage and other complications. Omit the tests, and a pregnancy is safer, its outcome uncertain.
That’s how it used to be, anyway. Now, genetic tests are becoming so cheap and non-invasive that they could become as routine as an ultrasound. DNA from the fetus is known to float freely in the mother’s blood and can be drawn in seconds, to be later analyzed for things like Down syndrome.
What will this mean for parents who discover birth defects or diseases in their unborn children? It’s impossible to know precisely who a child will become, but a world in which parents are informed of their baby’s genetics just weeks after conception brings with it a lot of ethical dilemmas.
Erin Biba analyzes this in one of the most interesting medical articles I’ve read in a long time, at Wired Science.