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Regardless of industry or sector, every new technological innovation means growing capabilities for mankind.

In forensic science, gone are the days of manually comparing fingerprints on paper, replaced by digital imaging technology that automatically obtains, stores and analyzes fingerprint data. Mass spectrometers have superseded the Marsh test, not to mention serological advancements that have made DNA what it is today. But given forensics’ role in the American justice system, these advancements and trends cannot be taken lightly.

A new paper out of the University of Minnesota argues neuroscientific evidence is the AFIS of today—with empirical studies on the subject rising and an overall trend toward more brain evidence in courts in the coming years. As it stands now, research on prejudicial effects of neuroscience evidence is decidedly mixed. What has come out of the conflicting results, however, is the find that context matters—in other words, it’s more important for research to address the question of how much or under what circumstances neuroscientific evidence affects case outcomes, rather than just the simple yes or no of does it have influence.

In a study published earlier this month in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, law professor Francis Shen found evidence that suggests American jurors can appropriately integrate neuroscientific evidence in their evaluations of criminal defendants, which could lead to an additional expert witness on the stand.

The study includes results from multiple experiments examining the effect of EEG-based memory recognition evidence on subjects’ evaluation of a fictional criminal fact pattern, while manipulating the strength of the non-neuroscientific evidence.

In two experiments, one using 868 online subjects and one using 611 in-person subjects, researchers asked subjects to read two short, fictional vignettes describing a protagonist accused of a crime. Manipulating expert evidence and the strength of the non-neuroscientific facts against the defendant, Shen discovered that the neuroscientific evidence was not as powerful a predictor as the overall strength of the case in determining outcomes.

“Our primary conclusion is that subjects are cognizant of, but not seduced by, brain-based memory recognition evidence,” the paper reads. “Subjects consider the evidence, and it has an effect in some contexts on their evaluations, but they generally weigh it as just one of many facts on the record.”

The authors go on to agree with a 2016 paper by Mowle et al. that suggests fears of neuroscience evidence being overly influential with jurors is somewhat overblown. In fact, Shen’s study found that brain images are not the mechanism by which neuroscience persuades—for most jurors, neuroscience evidence is just another fact that cannot outweigh the overall strength of a case.

Shen likens neuroscience’s future role in the courtroom to how instant replay is used in professional sports—in choice trials, where the evidence on both sides seems to be even, neuroscience could be used to tip the scales.

Although the limitations of the study were many—including real jurors, specific crime, and neuroscience technique—and additional research would have to be conducted before considering admissibility, Shen says the results “at least suggest a path forward” in the continued evaluation of neuroscience evidence.

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