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! Read More

Exploring the Brain in Pain: An Applied Neuroscience & Law Initiative

Amanda C. Pustilnik

I am excited to join the Petrie-Flom Center as the first Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience. This fellowship is the product of an innovative partnership between the Petrie-Flom Center and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This partnership aims to translate developments in neuroscience into legal applications, remaining sensitive to the normative dimensions of many – if not all – legal questions. The field of law & neuroscience is large and growing, addressing questions that intersect with nearly every area of law and a huge range of social and human concerns. CLBB is bringing together scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars to look at questions ranging from criminal responsibility and addiction, to mind-reading and brain-based lie detection, to how the brain’s changes over our lifecourse affect our capacities to make decisions.

In the first year of this joint venture, we will be focusing on a set of issues with potentially huge implications for the law: The problem of pain. Pain is pervasive in law, from tort to torture, from ERISA to expert evidence. Pain and suffering damages in tort add up to billions of dollars per year; disability benefits, often awarded to people who suffer or claim to have chronic pain, amount to over one hundred billion annually. Yet legal doctrines and decision-makers often understand pain poorly, relying on concepts that are out of date and that can cast suspicion on pain sufferers as having a problem that is “all in their heads.”

Now, brain imaging technologies are allowing scientists to see the brain in pain – and to reconceive of many types of pain as diseases of the central nervous system. Brain imaging shows that, in many cases, the problem is literally in sufferers’ heads: Long-term pain changes the structure and function of the brain, perpetuating non-adaptive pain and interfering with cognitive and emotional function. Read More