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Penn’s Law and Brain Student Group Mines the Intersection of Neuroscience, Society and the Courts

March 16, 2012

Courtesy of Penn News

Neuroscience, with its brain scans and complex molecular pathways, may seem to have little in common with the law — except perhaps a penchant for obscure Latin phrases. But a collection of students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania are bridging the gap with the Law and Brain Student Group and an accompanying lecture series.

Gabriel Lázaro L’13“Neuroscience is something that can impact almost every single action of humans,” said Gabriel Lázaro L’13, the group’s organizer and a law student at Penn. “From arts to criminal acts, it’s just telling you information about how we process everything we do.”

Begun in 2009 by former law student Benjamin Bumann L’11, the group and lecture series have continued under the guidance of Lázaro, who is now in his second year of Penn’s joint J.D./Master of Bioethics program. Lázaro came to Penn Law directly after finishing his Ph.D. in neuroscience, working under researcher Joseph LeDoux at New York University. There he studied how memories of traumatic events are shaped in a brain region called the amygdala and how responses to objects or events that recalled these traumas could be altered.

Partway through his science degree, however, he felt a pull to apply what he was learning in his studies in a broader contest.

“I loved the lab but wanted to go to law school,” Lázaro said. “I’ve always been interested in the law and the policy behind science, health and mental health.”

When selecting a law program, he found the resources of Penn Law, with its joint degree program and Center for Neuroscience and Society, appealing.

“Penn is a great place to integrate if you’re interested in policy and science development and neuroscience specifically,” he said.

The debates that can emerge from such integration are numerous. How the brain influences behavior could alter society’s notion of “free will” and judgment of whether and how someone should be punished for their actions. Research that uncovers what the brain looks like when a person lies could help judges and juries determine whether to trust testimonies. And as neuroscience advances, the law will need to keep pace to help society navigate quandaries that may arise with innovations such as neuromarketing, cognitive-enhancing drugs and memory-blocking techniques.

So far, there are relatively few applications of cutting-edge neuroscience research in the legal arena, Lázaro said. Those that do exist are controversial.

One example is functional MRIs, a type of brain scan that tracks blood flow in the brain and is thought to indicate areas of brain activity. Some research suggests that the scans could show whether someone is lying or even whether a criminal possesses neural deficiencies associated with being a psychopath. Still, there is much debate over whether these scientific techniques are reliable enough to serve as evidence of guilt or innocence.

That’s what makes bringing together experts in both law and science so valuable, Lázaro said.

“When you get into each of the fields, you start seeing the intricacies, concerns and doubts. As an academic, you begin to question how much you trust and how you can determine whether or not you have good data.”

The Law and Brain lectures draw a range of attendees, from law professors to medical students.

“All of this makes for a great debate,” Lázaro said. “These are scholarly discussions at their best, but what we’re talking about can impact what happens when we leave the room as well. I’m all for being practical and applying what we learn.”

In the most recent lecture, held March 15, Rita Goldstein, a scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, spoke about the legal and societal implications of viewing addiction as a brain disorder.

The final talk of the lecture series for the academic year will be held on April 19 featuring Paul Glimcher, a Penn alumnus and researcher at New York University, who will discuss how neurobiological findings may influence politics and economics. The series included Owen Jones, who holds the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law at Vanderbilt Law School and is director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, speaking about the neuroscience of punishment decisions; Adam Kolber, Professor of Lawat Brooklyn Law School on the privacy of thoughts and feelings; and Oliver Goodenough, Professor of Law at Vermont Law School and Faculty Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, on neuroscience, law, and institutional design.

The talks, which are open to the public, are held Thursdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Each is followed by a reception, sponsored by the Law School’s Dean’s Speaker Fund. Additional information, including the location of each talk, is available at the Law and Brain Student Group Web site.