Dr. Judith Eder­sheim, co-​​founder and co-​​director of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pital, explores how neu­ro­science can enhance the pur­suit of justice.

If neu­ro­science could shed light on mental states, it might be able to illu­mi­nate whether someone meant the crime or intended to harm someone,” Eder­sheim told approx­i­mately 200 stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff and com­mu­nity mem­bers who filled Northeastern’s Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Tuesday for the 13th annual Francine and Michael Safer­stein Memo­rial Lec­ture in Forensic Science.

The lec­ture series — which is co-​​sponsored by the Bar­nett Insti­tute of Chem­ical and Bio­log­ical Analysis and the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Jus­tice — was estab­lished by forensic sci­en­tist Richard Safer­stein in memory of his wife and child, who were killed in 1978 when a bomb dis­charged inside the family’s garage.

Barry Karger — the James L. Waters Chair in Ana­lyt­ical Chem­istry in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Sci­ence and director of the Bar­nett Insti­tute of Chem­ical and Bio­log­ical Analysis — intro­duced Eder­sheim by praising her for “per­forming a broad range of psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tions in crim­inal and civil forensic settings.”

Eder­sheim, who holds both an MD and JD, said “neu­rolaw” is sim­ilar to  “neu­ropol­i­tics” and “neu­ro­mar­keting,” in that the field tries to incor­po­rate both neu­ro­science and psy­chology into a more estab­lished practice.

One’s genetic com­po­si­tion as well as the elec­trical activity and phys­ical struc­ture of the working brain, she explained, can all be explored to shed light on the ques­tion of crim­inal responsibility.

But Eder­sheim added a note of cau­tion in taking this approach: If biology single-​​handedly deter­mines behavior, then the very notion of free will becomes com­pro­mised. Tech­no­log­ical, pro­ce­dural, con­sti­tu­tional and deter­min­istic lim­i­ta­tions, she said, must all be con­sid­ered when applying neu­ro­science to the law.

The sci­ence has to be respected in the com­mu­nity and it has to be peer reviewed,” Eder­sheim said. “It has to be reli­able, repro­ducible and there have to be known error rates. Judges are gate­keepers and they should keep evi­dence out that doesn’t meet those tests.”

Eder­sheim also addressed the con­sti­tu­tion­ality of neu­rolaw. If brain scans are exam­ples of invol­un­tary search and seizure or if they force defen­dants to unwill­ingly incrim­i­nate them­selves, then the pro­ce­dure, she said, could be in vio­la­tion of the Fourth and Fifth amend­ments, respectively.

Thoughts may be sub­ject to con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion,” Eder­sheim explained, adding that the law and the brain “live in dif­ferent worlds.”

The law, she said, gives us a set of rules we must abide by, but we must decide as a society whether neu­ro­bi­o­log­ical expla­na­tions of human behavior should matter when deter­mining criminality.

Eder­sheim said the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior has an “oper­a­tional phi­los­ophy for the faithful trans­la­tion of law into neu­ro­science,” meaning that court­room use of neu­ro­log­ical and bio­log­ical data should be lim­ited to instances when the sci­ence is inex­tri­cably and causally linked to a behavior.