What Should the Future Look Like for Brain-Based Pain Imaging in the Law? Three Eminent Scholars Weigh In

By Amanda C. Pustilnik, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law; Faculty Member, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital

What should the future look like for brain-based pain measurement in the law?  This is the question tackled by our concluding three contributors:  Diane Hoffmann, Henry (“Hank”) T. Greely, and Frank Pasquale. Professors Hoffmann and Greely are among the founders of the fields of health law and law & biosciences. Both discuss parallels to the development of DNA evidence in court and the need for similar standards, practices, and ethical frameworks in the brain imaging area.  Professor Pasquale is an innovative younger scholar who brings great theoretical depth, as well as technological savvy, to these fields.  Their perspectives on the use of brain imaging in legal settings, particularly for pain measurement, illuminate different facets of this issue.

This post describes their provocative contributions – which stake out different visions but also reinforce each other.  The post also highlights the forthcoming conference-based book with Oxford University Press and introduces future directions for the use of the brain imaging of pain – in areas as diverse as the law of torture, the death penalty, drug policy, criminal law, and animal rights and suffering.  Please read on!

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Neuroimaging as Evidence of Pain: It’s Time to Prepare

By Henry T. Greely, Edelman Johnson Professor of Law, Stanford Law School; Professor (by courtesy) of Genetics, Stanford Medical School; Director, Program in Neuroscience & Society, Stanford University

The recent meeting at Harvard on neuroimaging, pain, and the law demonstrated powerfully that the offering of neuroimaging as evidence of pain, in court and in administrative hearings, is growing closer. The science for identifying a likely pattern of neuroimaging results strongly associated with the subjective sensation of pain keeps improving. Two companies (and here) recently were founded to provide electro-encephalography (EEG) evidence of the existence of pain. And at least one neuroscientist has been providing expert testimony that a particular neuroimaging signal detected using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is useful evidence of the existence of pain, as discussed recently in Nature.

If nothing more is done, neuroimaging evidence of pain will be offered, accepted, rejected, relied upon, and discounted in the normal, chaotic course of the law’s evolution. A “good” result, permitting appropriate use of some valid neuroimaging evidence and rejecting inappropriate use of other such evidence, might come about. Or it might not.

We can do better than this existing non-system. And the time to start planning a better approach is now. (Read on for more on how)

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Emotion and Pain – Beyond “All in Your Head”

By David Seminowicz, Principal Investigator, Seminowicz Pain Imaging Lab, Department of Neural and Pain Sciences, University of Maryland

A potential difficulty, but also an opportunity, relating to using neuroimaging evidence in legal cases arises from the difficulty brain researchers have in separating emotional and physical pain. We know that pain and emotion are tightly linked. In fact, “emotion” is in the very definition of pain. The IASP definition of pain is: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”  Yet, the legal system deals with “physical” versus “psychiatric” versus “emotional” pain in different ways.

Chronic pain is associated with anxiety, depression, and stress. These factors can exacerbate the pain, and pain can exacerbate them. Pain’s sensory and emotional components connect in a “feed-forward” cycle. It may not be possible to entirely separate the sensory and emotional components of pain, biologically or experientially. But it might be necessary for the purposes of legal cases, as important areas of law create sharp distinctions between physical and emotional, or body and mind.

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Some Optimism on Brains, Pain, & Law – Let’s See What We Can Achieve

By Martha Farah, Director, University of Pennsylvania Center for Neuroscience & Society

Neurolaw includes some fascinating issues that lack any practical legal significance – for example whether we should consider anyone responsible for anything they do, given that all behavior is physically caused by brain processes.  It also includes some legally important issues that lack intellectual juiciness – like regulatory issues surrounding neurotechnology.

Thank goodness there are also some issues that combine intellectual fascination with practical legal importance. The Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School and the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital recently focused on just such an issue when they convened a meeting of neuroscientists and legal scholars on the brain imaging of pain.

Pain, I learned at this meeting, is at the heart of many legal proceedings. A major problem to be solved in these proceedings is the determination of whether someone is truly in pain. Chronic pain in particular may not have physically obvious causes. There may be clinical and circumstantial evidence of pain – like adhering to a medication regime, seeking surgeries or other interventional procedures, and avoiding pleasurable activities – but often the major evidence of pain is just what someone says that it is. However, the motivation exists to lie about pain – to sue for more money, to obtain disability benefits – and so an objective measure of pain, a “pain-o-meter,” would be helpful.

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Pain-o-meters: How – and Why – Should We Develop Them?

By Karen Davis

The prevalence of chronic pain is staggering.  The Institute of Medicine reported in 2011 that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain – more than those with heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.  The report also highlights that the annual costs for medical care, lost wages and productivity is more than $600B.  These enormous personal and societal costs of chronic pain has driven an effort to “prove” if and how much pain an individual is suffering from for health care providers, insurance companies and legal actors.  This is challenging because pain is a personal and subjective experience.  Ideally, self report would be sufficient to establish the “ground truth” of the pain experience.

However, some are not able to provide self reports accurately, and the potential financial gain associated with claims of pain has tarnished the perceived authenticity of subjective reports.  This has led some to develop brain imaging-based tests of pain – a so-called “painometer.”  Yet, current technologies are simply not able to determine whether or not someone has chronic pain.  Here, I consider specifically how we could develop a brain-imaging based painometer – and whether we would want to do so.  As we ask: “Can we do it?,” we should always ask, “Is this the right thing to do?”

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Pain on the Brain: A Week of Guest Posts on Pain Neuroimaging & Law

By Amanda C. Pustilnik

This week, the Petrie-Flom Center of Harvard Law School and the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital are hosting a series of posts on how brain imaging can help the law address issues of physical and emotional pain. Our contributors are world leaders in their fields, who participated on June 30, 2015, in the CLBB/Petrie-Flom conference Visible Solutions: How Brain Imaging Can Help Law Reenvision Pain.  They addressed questions including:

  • Can brain imaging can be a “painometer” to prove pain in legal cases?
  • Can neuroimaging help law do better at understanding what pain is?
  • How do emotion and pain relate to each other?
  • Does brain imaging showing emotional pain prompt us to reconsider law’s mind/body divide?

Professor Irene Tracey, D.Phil., a pioneer in pain neuroimaging and director of the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain, opened the conference with a keynote explaining what happens when the brain is in pain.

Professor Hank T. Greely, Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and Director of the Program in Neuroscience and Society at Stanford Law School, provided a keynote explaining the many implications of brain imaging for the law.

This conference was the culmination of CLBB’s year of work on pain neuroimaging and law. As the first CLBB-Petrie-Flom Center Senior Fellow on Law & Applied Neuroscience, I focused on pain because it is one of the largest social, economic, and legal problems that can be addressed through new insights into the brain. Pain imaging can be a test case for how neuroscience can contribute positively to law and culture.  (Full conference video proceedings are available here.)  Please read on below! Continue reading