Hair, Stress, and the Law

A new study has found a relationship between cortisol levels in our hair and prevalence of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of abnormalities that increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease). Here’s how the New York Times describes the study:

High levels of cortisol — the so-called stress hormone — have been associated with cardiovascular disease in some studies, but not in others. This may be because measuring cortisol in blood or saliva at one point in time may pick up acute stress, but it fails to account for long-term stress. . . . Now Dutch researchers have assessed cortisol levels over several months by analyzing scalp hair samples. . . . The researchers measured the cortisol content in hair samples corresponding to roughly three months of growth from 283 older men and women, average age 75. They also gathered self-reported data about coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, Type 2 diabetes, lung disease, cancer and osteoporosis. . . . Compared with those in the lowest quarter for cortisol, those in the highest quarter had about three times the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In the actual paper, the researchers say little or nothing about “stress,” and if I recall correctly, the relationship between cortisol and stress can be complicated. But the research raises the possibility that we will someday identify reliable measurements of chronic stress over time. Of course, we may need more than just your hair. But in what I call the experiential future, such evidence—combined perhaps with other physiological, neurological, and psychiatric data—may enable us to make better assessments of chronic stress levels than we can now.

Better measurements of chronic stress could transform the way we measure damages in tort cases and measure punishment severity in criminal cases. Billions of dollars change hands every year based on difficult-to-verify assertions about pain and stress. Similarly, we adjust the severity of incarceration by changing the duration of sentences and pay almost no attention to the very different ways in which prisoners experience confinement. Measurements of stress levels could also help determine when an interrogation tactic constitutes torture.

Of course, forensic techniques encourage people to use countermeasures. In the cortisol-hair study, for example, one measurement was apparently affected by rates of shampooing while another was not. So I’m not suggesting there will be a silver bullet that solves all measurement problems. When evaluating the scientific research, however, it is important to remember just how bad we are at measuring stress levels now, despite the fact that we make such assessments every day. The technology need hardly be perfect to represent an improvement.

Talking to Your Baby

By Joanna Sax

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he discussed creating affordable pre-school to all children.  Studies have shown that early childhood education is associated with academic success.  This is an important policy initiative; it’s also very expensive.

In an effort to reduce the disparity in the academic profiles of children, there may be some initiatives that can be started while the proposal for publicly funded early childhood education works its way through Congress.  One approach that is being tested is talking to your baby.

recent NY Times article described a scientific study concerning how talking to your baby is correlated with achievements in school.  It turns out, according to the article, that low-income parents of children speak fewer words to their babies compared to high-income parents and that by the time the children are of school-age, the children from poorer families have heard millions of fewer words.  This means that by the time the child is 3, they have heard 10s of millions of fewer words and the article suggests that this is correlated with IQ and academic success.

This is an issue that can be addressed!  Creative problem solving can be used to create programs to educate lower-income parents to talk more to their babies.  The increase in words alone might provide advantages to lower-income children that they didn’t have before.  This study provides a good example of the application of a scientific study to address social, health and economic issues.

 

Fox on DNA Forensic Error and the Execution of Innocents

By Dov Fox

Willie Jerome Manning, a 44-year-old black man, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of white college students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller in Mississippi. No physical evidence has ever linked Manning to the crime. And the Justice Department has just come clean that the forensic science used to prosecute Manning was fundamentally flawed.

A jury convicted Manning almost 20 years ago based on three kinds of circumstantial evidence. First was the testimony of his cousin and a jailhouse informant who claimed that he confessed the crime to them. The cousin had accused two other men before Manning, however, and the informant has since recanted altogether. Second were Steckler’s jacket, ring, and CD player from his car that Manning was arrested for trying to sell. Manning told police from the beginning that he had acquired the stolen property from someone he didn’t know.

Critical to the prosecution’s case was the last piece of evidence against Manning: expert testimony by an FBI agent that African American hair fragments were found in Miller’s car. Not only did DNA and fingerprints found at the crime scene never incriminate Manning himself, however. Two days ago, the Justice Department notified Manning’s lawyer and the County District Attorney that “testimony containing erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis was used in this case.” Federal officials have yet to detail the precise errors involved, but made clear in their letter that the FBI’s forensic evidence was unsound not least because it “exceeded the limits of science” at the time.

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