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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An ELSI Program for Pain Research: A Call to Action

By Diane Hoffmann, Director, Law & Health Care Program; Professor of Law; University of Maryland School of Law

As someone who has been greatly concerned about and devoted much of my scholarship to legal obstacles to the treatment of pain, I applaud Professor Pustilnik for increasing attention to the role of neuroimaging in our efforts to understand our experience of pain and how the law does or does not adequately take into account such experience. Pustilnik has written eloquently about this issue in several published articles but her efforts to bring together scientists, medical experts, legal academics, and judges (see also here) deserves high praise as a method for illuminating what we know and do not know about pain and the brain and to what extent brain imaging can serve as a diagnostic tool or an external validator of pain experience.

In this post, I discuss how DNA testing serves as a precedent for how to develop responsible uses of new technologies in law, including, potentially, brain imaging for pain detection. The ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of DNA research and testing were integral to developing national protocols and rules about DNA. Brain imaging of pain needs its own ELSI initiative, before zealous adoption outpaces both the technology and the thinking about the right guiding principles and limitations.

The idea of brain images serving as a “pain-o-meter” to prove or disprove pain in legal cases is clearly a premature use of this information and likely an over simplification of the mechanisms of pain expression. However, the potential for an objective diagnostic tool or indicator of the pain experience is something that lawyers representing clients in criminal, personal injury, workers comp or disability cases may find too attractive to resist and attempt to have admitted in the courtroom. This state of affairs brings to mind the ways in which lawyers have attempted to use genetic test results, initially obtained for medical purposes, in litigation.  (Read on for more about ELSI in DNA and several national pain initiatives that could adopt the Human Genome Project and DNA ELSI model).

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DNA Art

According to an article in the NYT, an artist has collected DNA samples from litter on sidewalks, such as chewing gum and cigarette butts, and used those samples to extract and sequence DNA that she then used to make computer models of their owners’ faces. She then printed 3-D masks that she is showing at her upcoming exhibit called Stranger Visions. The artist hopes her exhibit will spark a dialogue over genetic surveillance.

The NYT article explains that

[w]hile staring at the wall of her therapist’s office, the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg noticed a strand of hair stuck in a hanging print. Walking home, she noticed that the subways and sidewalks were littered with genetic material on things like chewing gum and cigarette butts, some still moist with saliva. Curious about what she could learn, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg began to extract and sequence DNA from these discarded materials. Then — and here it gets a little eerie — she began to make computer models of their owners’ faces, using genetic clues to print 3-D masks that she concedes “might look more like a possible cousin than a spitting image.” Hanging these portraits along with the original samples, she says, is “a provocation designed to spur a cultural dialogue about genetic surveillance.” After the June exhibitions, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg will show her work early next year at the New York Public Library. She has also collaborated on a tongue-in-cheek project called DNA spoofing, which purports to offer ordinary people some techniques to avoid detection by scrambling their genetic material.

Talk and exhibition at Genspace in Brooklyn on June 13. Exhibition at QF Gallery in East Hampton, N.Y., opens June 29.

[Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog]