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Scanning felons' brains could help predict whether they'll reoffend

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MRI brain scan (Nata-Lia / Shutterstock)
MRI brain scan (Nata-Lia / Shutterstock)

Over five decades since A Clockwork Orange foretold a future where experimental science is used to "cure" repeat offenders, a study of 96 male felons has used brain scans to predict the likelihood of falling back into crime. While the neuroscientist who led the study, Kent Kiehl of Albuquerque's Mind Research Network, warns that the method is still far from accurate enough to be useful in real-world assessments, Wired reports that certain individuals were found to be around twice as likely to be rearrested within four years of their release.

Some found twice as likely to reoffend

The study used mobile MRI scanners to test inmates' brains for impulsivity; subjects were asked to press a button when they saw the letter X appear on a screen, and do nothing when they saw K. The letter K only popped up 16 percent of the time, so that subjects would be taken by surprise. The inmates that made more errors on the task had lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which could suggest a tendency to act upon impulses without thinking — and these were the subjects found twice as likely to reoffend.

However, it's unlikely that the study in its current form will prove much use in practice. Clinical psychologist Dustin Pardini notes that subjects would be able to subvert the results by moving their head during the scan, or deliberately altering their behavior in the test. The study has also yet to be directly compared to traditional pen-and-paper assessment, either in terms of cost efficacy or accuracy. "In general we're horrible at predicting human behavior," says Pardini, "and I don't see this as being any different. At least not in the near future."