Brain imaging testimony in criminal cases creates controversy

The PET Brain Imaging Center at the University of California, Irvine--and in particular, staff member Joseph Wu, M.D.--are receiving some unfavorable media coverage because of the way Wu is using brain imaging technology for forensic diagnoses in criminal court cases.

According to an article in by Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative news agency covering politics and government in Orange County, Calif., Wu has collected an "unorthodox" group of patients--a dozen convicted murderers who are sitting on Florida's death row.

Voice of OC reports that Wu has, for years, been flying to Florida to appear at criminal trials or at post-conviction hearings on death sentences to testify on PET brain imaging scans, which he has said can detect earlier brain damage or anomalies that can explain violent behavior.

This has earned Wu a questionable national reputation, the article asserts.

Lawrence Holder, a radiologist at the University of Florida at Jacksonville, referred to Wu's methods "hokum" in the article. "He shows a pretty picture of a scan with a color indicating an abnormal area," Holder said. "But he can't say it is abnormal. And even if it was, he can't say what it could cause."

Alan Waxman, director of PET imaging and nuclear medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical center in Los Angeles, also called the use of these colorful brain images "not scientifically valid.

"You can't use a PET scan in this arena," Waxman told Voice of OC. "You have to have some scientific studies to hang your hat on. Maybe someday we will. But not now."

The use of neuroimaging in the courtroom, however, has been a longstanding practice.

Between 2007 and 2011, for instance, the number of cases in which judges mentioned neuroscientific evidence in their opinions increased from 112 to more than 1,500, according to Duke University research Nita Farahany, who was quoted in an article published in U.S. News and World Report nearly two years ago.

"The biggest way in which neuroscience is being used in the courtroom is to mitigate punishment in one way or another," Farahany said, adding that it's almost exclusively used in death penalty cases. "They say they have a history of brain injury and trauma to say 'I have a different brain than the average person. Because of that difference, I have less control over myself.'"

In research published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, neuroscientists said that they could use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine which criminals are likely to commit more crimes.

To learn more:
- see the article from Voice of OC
- read the article in U.S. News and World Report

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