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Posted on June 8, 2015 at 12:20 PM

In March of this year the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 2), the second volume of its two-part report on ethics and neuroscience. In Gray Matters, Vol. 2, the Bioethics Commission analyzed three topics, including the application of neuroscience to the legal system. Advances in neuroscience might help us achieve more accuracy in decision making, decreased errors in advancing justice, and improved policymaking. However, the application of neuroscience to the legal system also raises concerns about conceptions of free will and mental privacy, among others.

Applications of neuroscience to the legal system include supporting propositions concerning competency to stand trial, mitigation of criminal responsibility, and predicting future dangerousness. The Bioethics Commission recognized the importance of comprehensive information regarding the use of neuroscience evidence in making important legal and policy decisions. The Commission urged organizations and government bodies to publish reports that address the successes, challenges, and limitations of neuroscience’s application to the legal system. Specifically, the Bioethics Commission recommended:

Relevant bodies, such as the National Academies of Science, the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Institute of Justice, and the Social Security Administration, should support comprehensive studies of the use of neuroscience in legal decision making and policy development.

In response to the surge in DNA evidence used in criminal investigations, and in response to evidence obtained by polygraph examinations, various groups produced reports and recommendations that addressed questions about and limitations of these technologies. Similar reports on the application of neuroscience to the legal system should address the potential, limitations, and challenges for the use of neuroscience evidence in the courtroom and neuroimaging techniques for investigative purposes. For example, government agencies that collect and process data on medical claims in administrative legal proceedings, such as the Social Security Administration, could support new studies to improve understanding of pain and disability to facilitate accuracy in claim processing and arbitration.

Gray Matters, Vol. 2 and all other Bioethics Commission reports are available at


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