About This Program

In 2009 the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a leading clinical, teaching and research program in psychiatry and neuroscience, proposed the formation of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (the Center) that would advance the burgeoning application of medical concepts in the legal system. The proposed Center will build upon the established research and clinical expertise of MGH to coordinate an interdisciplinary research and training program to seek appropriate applications of psychiatric and neurological diagnosis and treatment principles in the courtroom.


Remarkable advances in neuroscience over the past forty years are transforming and also challenging the current legal system. While this progress has occurred in all fields of neuroscience, the most visually accessible advances have been in the realm of neuroimaging. Functional imaging techniques, such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), allow the examination of the functioning human brain in normal, disease and experimental states.

Psychiatrists and neurologists are working at an accelerated pace to determine the cause and effect relationships between brain injury, intellectual functioning and behavioral change. The fields of cognitive neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and neuroimaging are converging, offering the real possibility that the components of complex human behavior can be understood at a cellular level and visualized at a functional level. What was previously unimaginable is now possible:

  • The use of functional imaging to make a non-invasive, pre-surgical map of the location of language in a patient with a brain tumor, in order to guide neurosurgery and minimize post-operative language deficits
  • The use of fMRI to track learning-related cortical changes in children with developmental disorders (such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder) in order to assess the effectiveness of different treatment interventions
  • The use of PET scans to determine how neural circuits generate words, and the application of this knowledge to study the recovery of language generation following stroke
  • The use of functional imaging to track anatomical changes associated with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder in returning combat veterans

As with many scientific advances, these nascent findings in neuroscience and neuroimaging have quickly found their way into the courtroom, as judges and juries are asked to draw conclusions about individual decision-making capacity or personal responsibility using this new data. However, the emergence of these concepts into the courtroom are at times haphazard as there are few reliable and scientifically accepted conclusions that have provided the legal profession the ability to measure the reliability and accuracy of these technologies.

As the legal system begins to face large and complex questions regarding the potential impact that new neuro-technologies may have in the courtroom, the Center seeks to provide responsible, ethical and scientifically sound translation of these concepts. These questions are enormous in scope, and require thoughtful interdisciplinary discourse to avoid arbitrary, premature interpretation of the science. Issues being faced include:

  1. Will neurological tests offer a reliable way to detect truth from falsehood?
    • Is the technology used to determine truth or falsehood compatible with the American legal system?
    • Will these technologies enhance or diminish individual Constitutional rights?
  2. Will brain imaging techniques alter fundamental principles of criminal law and personal responsibility?
    • Is behavior biologically determined by the brain?
    • Will neuroimaging permit the prediction of human behavior?
    • a. Is personal responsibility a biological or a social construct?
  3. Will the neurobiology of decision-making offer clear guidelines with which to distinguish between those able to make decisions and those needing protection?
    • Will guidelines protect individuals from economic exploitation?
    • Will guidelines protect individuals from undue influence?

The overarching goal of the Center is to bring together clinical experts in the fields of neurology, psychiatry, neuroimaging and the law in order to make a scientifically well-grounded translation of medical concepts when they reach the legal realm. Of necessity, this will require the exploration of ethical dilemmas posed by this intellectual crossover.

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