Tumors on Trial – University of Wisconsin Neuroscience and Law Program

One day you wake up and something doesn’t feel right.  You don’t feel like yourself.  You have urges and desires that you never knew were possible.

Later on, you find that a tumor has started to grow in your brain that caused you to have lapses in judgments – changing who you are.  Are you responsible for what you did?  A new program at the UW- Madison will focus on the intersection between the brain and law.

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and spinal cord.  These are the scientists that can tell us how we move, think, or even read this story.

Ronald Kalil, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, helped start the new duel-degree program.

“Recent advances in neuroscience have called into question many of the assumptions that underlie aspects of our legal system,” said Kalil.

Kalil was the director of the Neuroscience Training Program at UW- Madison for 25 years.  He started to notice his students’ poor writing skills and, although his work was in brain damage, Kalil ventured across disciplines to teach neuroscience classes to journalism students.

Kalil also saw that students were interested in aspects of international neuroscience and the associated public policy.  He developed the current Neuroscience and Public Policy dual-degree program.

While the program is in its sixth year, Kalil realized that it wasn’t enough.  He realized many issues today would require more action than just public policy: they need law.

Most people see law little connection between law and neuroscience.  This program brings the two sides together.

“It can be expected that neuroscience will play an increasingly important role in helping to inform legal processes and decisions making,” said Kalil.

Kalil has been taking cues from the larger social atmosphere leaning towards popularizing neuroscience.  The National Institutes of Health has started granting funding specifically for social neuroscience and the MacArthur foundation has funded over 10 million dollars of research designed to implement neuroscience in law.

The MacArthur foundation has created a comprehensive handbook about what neuroscientists should tell judges about how to make a ruling in the court.  The handbook is designed to help judges make decisions about more delicate cases like minors being tried as adults.

“Is that appropriate?” asked Kalil.  Cases with minors can be very difficult to handle without the aid of neuroscience.  “Take him out and shoot him.  He’ll be in jail the rest of his life.  It’s just not right.”

The field of law, on the other hand, may help modern neuroscience address many gray areas.

“On the one hand we have to protect society, but on the other hand, we have to figure out how to punish people not responsible for what they’re doing,” said Kalil.

A broad range of neurological cases will be considered by the class.  For example, a normal man could get into an accident changing his personality and commit a crime that is out of character.  Using neuroscience, doctors could discover a tumor in the man’s brain, remove it, and he would return to normal.  The crime would likely be forgiven.

But what about the professional athlete pumping steroids who kills his family  and blames “roid rage”?  He knowingly took the medication.

Or what about the teacher who isn’t granted tenure and kills the rest of the faculty?  Was she responsible, or was it just an imbalance of the neurochemicals constantly fluctuating within her brain?

This brings up interesting questions about free will.  Are we actually in charge of our choices?  Or is some neuronal circuitry within our brains preventing us from making consciences decisions.

“I don’t know,” said Kalil.  The dual degree program is still working to figure some answers out.  “Students often have a very difficult time learning that they might not be the masters of their own ships.”  Kalil is dedicated to creating a program that addresses these issues.

Help for the criminally insane isn’t the only reason to add neuroscience to the courtroom.  Baby boomers will soon be dealing with neurological diseases.

“It will be a huge public health problem,” said Kalil.  “Plaques [relating to Alzheimer’s] can start forming early in the 30s and 40s.”

Researchers are currently looking for specific indicators called biomarkers that can be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.  If a marker were found, a possible law might be placed forcing everyone to get screened.

“Who will be at the table making that decision?” asked Kalil.  “We need a neuroscientist who understands both sides.”

Neuroscience is now facing a battle that geneticists have been fighting for years: where do we draw the line between science and law.  Still, there is no genetics and law dual degree program offered by the university.

“The reason neuroscience was chosen instead of genetics, is, well, because I’m a neuroscientist,” Kalil said.




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