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).