Tag Archives: EEG

Brain scans are saving convicted murderers from death row–but should they?

Over a decade ago, a brain-mapping technique known as a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) was first used in a death penalty case, helping keep a convicted killer and serial child rapist off death row. It achieved this by swaying jurors that traumatic brain injury (TBI) had left him prone to impulsive violence.

In the years since, qEEG has remained in a weird stasis, inconsistently accepted in a small number of death penalty cases in the USA. In some trials, prosecutors fought it as junk science; in others, they raised no objections to the imaging: producing a case history built on sand. Still, this handful of test cases could signal a new era where the legal execution of humans becomes outlawed through science.

Quantifying criminal behavior to prevent it

As it stands, if science cannot quantify or explain every event or action in the universe, then we remain in chaos with the very fabric of life teetering on nothing but conjecture. But DNA evidentiary status aside, isn’t this what happens in a criminal court case? So why is it so hard to integrate verified neuroimaging into legal cases? Of course, one could make a solid argument that it would be easier to simply do away with barbaric death penalties and concentrate on stopping these awful crimes from occurring in the first instance, but this is a different debate.

The problem is more complex than it seems. Neuroimaging could be used not just to exempt the mentally ill from the death penalty but also to explain horrendous crimes to the victims or their families. And just as crucial, could governments start implementing measures to prevent this type of criminal behavior using electrotherapy or counseling to ‘rectify’ abnormal brain patterns? This could lead down some very slippery slopes.

Especially it’s not just death row cases that are questioning qEEG — nearly every injury lawsuit in the USA also now includes a TBI claim. With Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) and Computed tomography (CT) being generally expensive, lawyers are constantly seeking new ways to prove brain dysfunction. Readers should note that both of these neuroimaging techniques are viewed as more accurate than qEEG but can only provide a single, static image of the neurological condition – and thus provide no direct measurement of functional, ongoing brain activity.

In contrast, the cheaper and quicker qEEG testing purports to monitor active brain activity to diagnose many neurological conditions continuously and could one-day flag those more inclined to violence, enabling early interventional therapy sessions and one-to-one help, focusing on preventing the problem.

But until we can reach this sort of societal level, defense and human rights lawyers have been attempting to slowly phase out legal executions by using brain mapping – to explain why their convicted clients may have committed these crimes. Gradually moving from the consequences of mental illness and disorders to understanding these conditions more.

The sad case of Nikolas Cruz

But the questions surrounding this technology will soon be on trial again in the most high-profile death penalty case in decades: Florida vs. Nikolas Cruz. On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, Cruz opened fire on school children and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland when he was just 19 years of age. Now classed as the deadliest school shooting in the country’s history, the state charged the former Stoneman Douglas High student with the premeditated murder of 17 school children and staff and the attempted murder of a further seventeen people. 

With the sentencing expected in April 2022, Cruz’s defense lawyers have enlisted qEEG experts as part of their case to persuade jurors that brain defects should spare him the death penalty. The Broward State Attorney’s Office signaled in a court filing last month that it will challenge the technology and ask a judge to exclude the test results—not yet made public—from the case.

Cruz has already pleaded guilty to all charges, but a jury will now debate whether to hand down the death penalty or life in prison.

According to a court document filed recently, Cruz’s defense team intends to ask the jury to consider mitigating factors. These include his tumultuous family life, a long history of mental health disorders, brain damage caused by his mother’s drug addiction, and claims that a trusted peer sexually abused him—all expected to be verified using qEEG.

After reading the flurry of news reports on the upcoming case, one can’t help but wonder why, even without the use of qEEG, someone with a record of mental health issues at only 19 years old should be on death row. And as authorities and medical professionals were aware of Cruz’s problems, what were the preventative-based failings that led to him murdering seventeen individuals? Have these even been addressed or corrected? Unlikely.

On a positive note, prosecutors in several US counties have not opposed brain mapping testimony in more recent years. According to Dr. David Ross, CEO of NeuroPAs Global and qEEG expert, the reason is that more scientific papers and research over the years have validated the test’s reliability. Helping this technique gain broader use in the diagnosis and treatment of cognitive disorders, even though courts are still debating its effectiveness. “It’s hard to argue it’s not a scientifically valid tool to explore brain function,” Ross stated in an interview with the Miami Herald.

What exactly is a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG)?

To explain what a qEEG is, first, you must know what an electroencephalogram or EEG does. These provide the analog data for computerized qEEGs that record the electrical potential difference between two electrodes placed on the outside of the scalp. Multiple electrodes (generally >20) are connected in pairs to form various patterns called montages, resulting in a series of paired channels of EEG activity. The results appear as squiggly lines on paper—brain wave patterns that clinicians have used for decades to detect evidence of neurological problems.

More recently, trained professionals have computerized this data to create qEEG – translating raw EEG data using mathematical algorithms to help analyze brainwave frequencies. Clinicians then compare this statistical analysis against a database of standard or neurotypical brain types to discern those with abnormal brain function that could cause criminal behavior in death row cases.

While this can be true, results can still go awry due to incorrect electrode placement, unnatural imaging, inadequate band filtering, drowsiness, comparisons using incorrect control databases, and choice of timeframes. Furthermore, processing can yield a large number of clinically irrelevant data. These are some reasons that the usefulness of qEEG remains controversial despite the volume of published research. However, many of these discrepancies can be corrected by simply using trained medical professionals to operate the apparatus and interpret the data.

Just one case is disrupting the use of this novel technology

Yet, despite this easy correction, qEEG is not generally accepted by the relevant scientific community to diagnose traumatic brain injuries and is therefore inadmissible under Frye v. the United States. An archaic case from way back in 1923 based on a polygraph test, the trial came a mere 17-years after Cajal and Golgi won a Nobel Prize for producing slides and hand-drawn pictures of neurons in the brain.

Experts could also argue that a lie detector test (measuring blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity) is far removed from a machine monitoring brain activity. Furthermore, when the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia decided on this lawsuit, qEEG didn’t exist. 

Applying the Frye standard, courts throughout the country have excluded qEEG evidence in the context of alleged brain trauma. For example, the Florida Supreme Court has formally noted that the relevant scientific community for purposes of Frye showed “qEEG is not a reliable method for determining brain damage and is not widely accepted by those who diagnose a neurologic disease or brain damage.” 

However, in a seminal paper covering the use of qEEG in cognitive disorders, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) overall felt computer-assisted diagnosis using qEEG is an accurate, inexpensive, easy to handle tool that represents a valuable aid for diagnosing, evaluating, following up and predicting response to therapy — despite their opposition to the technology in this press. The paper also features other neurological associations validating the use of this technology.

The introduction of qEEg on death row was not that long ago

Only recently introduced, the technology was first deemed admissible in court during the death-penalty prosecution of Grady Nelson in 2010. Nelson stabbed his wife 61 times with a knife, then raped and stabbed her 11-year-old intellectually disabled daughter and her 9-year old son. The woman died, while her children survived. Documents state that Nelson’s wife found out he had been sexually abusing both children for many years and sought to keep them away from him.

Nelson’s defense argued that earlier brain damage had left him prone to impulsive behavior and violence. Prosecutors fought to strike the qEEG test from evidence, contending that the science was unproven and misused in this case.

“It was a lot of hocus pocus and bells and whistles, and it amounted to nothing,” the prosecutor on the case, Abbe Rifkin, stated. “When you look at the facts of the case, there was nothing impulsive about this murder.”

However, after hearing the testimony of Dr. Robert W. Thatcher, a multi-award-winning pioneer in qEEG analysis for the defense, Judge Hogan-Scola, found qEEG met the legal prerequisites for reliability. She based this on Frye and Daubert standards, two important cases involving the technology.

She allowed jurors to hear the qEEG report and even permitted Thatcher to present a computer slide show of Nelson’s brain with an explanation of the effects of frontal lobe damage at the sentencing phase. He testified that Nelson exhibited “sharp waves” in this region, typically seen in people with epilepsy – explaining that Grady doesn’t have epilepsy but does have a history of at least three TBIs, which could explain the abnormality seen in the EEG.  

Interpreting the data, Thatcher also told the court that the frontal lobes, located directly behind the forehead, regulate behavior. “When the frontal lobes are damaged, people have difficulty suppressing actions … and don’t understand the consequences of their actions,” Thatcher told ScienceInsider.

Jurors rejected the death penalty. Two jurors who agreed to be interviewed by a major national publication later categorically stated that the qEEG imaging and testimony influenced their decision.

“The moment this crime occurred, Grady had a broken brain,” his defense attorney, Terry Lenamon, said. “I think this is a huge step forward in explaining why people are broken—not excusing it. This is going to go a long way in mitigating death penalty sentences.”

On the other hand, Charles Epstein, a neurologist at Emory University in Atlanta, who testified for the prosecution, states that the qEEG data Thatcher presented flawed statistical analysis riddled with artifacts not naturally present in EEG imaging. Epstein adds that the sharp waves Thatcher reported may have been blips caused by the contraction of muscles in the head. “I treat people with head trauma all the time,” he says. “I never see this in people with head trauma.”

You can see Epstein’s point as it’s unclear whether these brain injuries occurred before or after Nelson brutally raped a 7-year old girl in 1991, after which he was granted probation and trained as a social worker.

All of which invokes the following questions: Firstly, do we need qEEG to state this person’s behavior is abnormal or that the legal system does not protect children and secondly, was the reaction of authorities in the 1991 case appropriate, let alone preventative?

As more mass shootings and other forms of extreme violence remain at relatively high levels in the United States, committed by younger and younger perpetrators flagged as loners and fantasists by the state mental healthcare systems they disappear into – it’s evident that sturdier preventative programs need to be implemented by governments worldwide. The worst has already occurred; our children are unprotected against dangerous predators and unaided when affected by their unstable and abusive environments, inappropriate social media, and TV.  

A potential beacon of hope, qEEG is already beginning to highlight the country’s broken socio-legal systems and the amount of work it will take to fix them. Attempting to humanize a diffracted court system that still disposes of the product of trauma and abuse like they’re nothing but waste, forcing the authorities to answer for their failings – and any science that can do this can’t be a bad thing.

Older people believe their own lies

New research shows that seniors can be inclined to believe their own lies — even a mere hour after they were told.

While lying comes easy to some people, it’s a surprisingly complex cognitive process. Psychologists and neurologists are particularly interested in lying because it’s a special process and unusually, it is not about straightforward communication, but rather about deceiving.

Associate professor of psychology Angela Gutchess and her colleagues set out to explore whether people can end up believing their own lies. They recruited 42 participants, split into two groups (seniors aged 60-92, and millennials aged 18-24), assessing how likely the two groups are to believe a lie they’ve told less than an hour earlier.

There were no age differences in the correct memory for truth items, but for lies, there was quite a difference: researchers found that the older participants were significantly more likely to believe their own lies.

“Older adults have more difficulty distinguishing between what’s real and not real,” said Laura Paige, a former graduate student in the Gutchess lab and the paper’s first author.

“Once they’ve committed to a lie, it’s going to alter whether they remember doing something,” Paige added.

The questions were trivial, along the lines of “Did you press snooze on your alarm clock?” and “Did you use a fork to eat lunch?”. Participants were asked to lie in half of these questions, in whichever order they prefer. Then, 45 minutes later, they were asked to fill out the same questionnaire, but they were instructed to answer all questions truthfully. At the same time, EEG data was gathered.

Lying requires a great deal of cognitive control, and researchers believe that since on average, elder adults have lower cognitive power than young people, this disparity could help explain why youngsters were more likely to recall their lies.

Additionally, the EEG data suggested that lying engaged brain processes also associated with working memory — in other words, lying can potentially affect your memories and, as this study suggests, make a lie feel as real as truth. This came as a surprise, as researchers assumed that older adults’ memory would be unaffected by lying.

“We hypothesized that lying impairs memory for younger adults, as increased cognitive control, necessary to inhibit a truthful response, comes at the expense of retaining veridical information in memory. Because older adults show deficits in cognitive control, we hypothesized their memory is unaffected by lying,” the study reads.

In addition, the EEG data revealed that lying engaged the brain processes responsible for working memory. According to Paige, this finding suggests a lie can embed itself in memory and come to feel as real as the truth.

“Lying alters memory,” Paige concludes. “It creates a new memory for something that didn’t happen.”

The study has been published in Brain and Cognition.

fantasy dreamAC

Fantasy and Reality – how does the brain tell the difference?

Some people, like history’s greatest artists or scientists, have a fantastic imagination that long transcends reality. Others have this line completely blurred and can’t make sense of what’s real or not. For most of us, however, fantasy and reality are clearly separated in our mental psyche. Now, a team of neuroscientists have explored the neural pathways that move information pertaining to both worlds; one exclusively in our heads, the other extrinsic (with added mental filters, of course). Their findings suggest that the signal flow of information when we imagine things is in exact reverse to the one when we experience the outside world.

fantasy dreamAC

Credit: Fan Pop

“A really important problem in brain research is understanding how different parts of the brain are functionally connected. What areas are interacting? What is the direction of communication?” says Barry Van Veen, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We know that the brain does not function as a set of independent areas, but as a network of specialized areas that collaborate.”

Van Veen and colleagues are trying to find out what happens in the brain when we sleep and dream, but also how the brain encodes short-term memory. The team strapped sensors on the scalps of participants in order to measure their brain activity. This process, called electroencephalography, allows the researchers to distinguish between various neural networks and then associate them to whatever the participant was doing or was experiencing at the time.

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In order to view a set of target neural circuits, the researchers looked at how signals flashed through the brain of participants when they were fantasizing or when they were subjected to external stimuli. With the EEG on, a short movie was played (external input), then the participants were asked to replay the same movie in their heads as best as they could. Others were asked to imagine traveling on a magic bicycle — focusing on the details of shapes, colors and textures — before watching a short video of silent nature scenes.

Using an algorithm that set aside noise and allowed the researchers to distinguish signal pathways, the team found that when people would imagine anything there was an increase in the flow of information from the parietal lobe of the brain to the occipital lobe (from a higher-order region to a lower-order one). When visualizing information, the signal traveled in reverse – visual information taken in by the eyes tends to flow from the occipital lobe — which makes up much of the brain’s visual cortex — “up” to the parietal lobe.

“There seems to be a lot in our brains and animal brains that is directional, that neural signals move in a particular direction, then stop, and start somewhere else,” says Van Veen. “I think this is really a new theme that had not been explored.”

Findings were reported in the journal NeuroImage.


Automated tasks are still processed while you sleep


Image: Washington Post

Despite an incredible body of work dedicated to researching what goes inside the brain while we sleep, consensus among neuroscientists suggests we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. For instance, we’ve yet to answer a fundamental question: why do we need sleep? We all agree that we needed it  – going without sleep for long periods of time can bring terrible consequences – but the mechanics that underlie it are far from being understood. A new research made by a team of French and British scientists lends us further insight into the amazing world of the sleeping brain. The findings suggest that we are still capable of processing verbal instructions even though we’re fast asleep, which might go to explain why you wake up when someone calls your name in the background, but not when other sounds are about.

Pushing buttons in your sleep

Studies so far suggest there’s a definite connection between sleep, memory and learning, but the present research (published in Cell) focused on how the brain responds to automatic tasks while sleeping. First, the researchers asked volunteers to identify spoken words as either animals or objects while they were awake by pushing a corresponding button – right hand for animals or their left hand for objects. The participants did this until the task became automatic and all the while their brain waves were scanned.

EEG (electroencephalogram)  showed where activity was taking place in the brain and what parts of the brain were being prepped for response. When the word elephant is heard, a part of the brain recognizes the word while another part processes it as being an animal.

[ALSO READ] Newly discovered ‘sleep node’ in the brain puts you to sleep without sedatives

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers waited until the participants fell asleep in a comfortable reclining chair. While in a state between light sleep and the deeper sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM), the participants were told a new list of words. Of course, their hands couldn’t move this time, but their brains showed the same sorting pattern akin to when they were awake.

“In a way what’s going on is that the rule they learn and practice still is getting applied,” Tristan Bekinschtein, one of the authors of the study, told Shots. The human brain continued, when triggered, to respond even through sleep.

The researchers weren’t totally satisfied with these results so they re-made the experiment, only this time instead of animals and objects, they exposed participants to real or fake words. Just as before,  sleeping participants showed brain activity that indicated they were processing and preparing to move their hands to correctly indicate either real words or fake words were being spoken.

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“It’s pretty exciting that it’s happening during sleep when we have no idea,” Ken Paller, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University who is unaffiliated with the study, told Shots. “We knew that words could be processed during sleep.” But, Paller adds, “we didn’t know how much and so this takes it to say, the level of preparing an action.”

So, does this mean that you can perform tasks while asleep? The findings suggest that our brains are capable of processing tasks and instructions for automated tasks, but this doesn’t mean you can use shuteye time to memorize verbs or learn a new language. It might be possible, though, that certain tasks  begun in an awake state might continue through early sleep — like crunching calculations.

“It’s a terrible thought, in the modern world,” says Bekinschtein, referring to the pride people take in forgoing sleep for work. “I think in a way, these experiments are going to empower people … that we can do things in sleep that are useful.”

humiliated cat

Humiliation may be the most intense of human emotions

humiliated cat

Photo: worldwidewhiskers.wordpress.com

If you look back, you’ll find that some of your most treasured memories are linked to powerful emotions, be them positive or negative. Somehow, it may seem that negative emotions linger longer in our lives, long after the event that triggered them passed. Now, research has garnered tantalizing proof that suggests the most intense of human emotions is humiliation.

The rainbow of feelings

Love, hate, happiness, anger, dismay, relief. Our whole lives are influenced and governed by a whole spectrum of emotions – it’s what makes us human after all. Gift and curse, feelings make life worth living, even though at times they can cause terrible pain that makes you wish you were never born. Such is life, yet some feelings are more intense than other. Is there a master emotion dominating all the rest by magnitude or is everything kept in a delicate balance of negative and positive, action and reaction, ying and yang? If there were such a thing, the feeling of being humiliated might take the emotional crown.

Marte Otten and Kai Jonas, both psychologists, decided to investigate some claims that humiliation is a particularly intense, even unique, human emotion with great personal and social consequences. Some humiliating scenes can haunt people all their lives and leave dents in personalities that are had to mend. In extreme cases, humiliation may be responsible for war and strife. Otten and Jonas knew, like most of us, that humiliation is intense, but their efforts led them to turn this view into an objective analysis.

Dissecting humiliation

The researchers performed two separate studies. In the first one, they asked participants, both male and female, to read short stories involving different emotions, and had to imagine how they’d feel in the described scenarios. The first study compared humiliation (e.g. your internet date takes one look at you and walks out), anger (e.g. your roommate has a party and wrecks the room while you’re away) and happiness (e.g. you find out a person you fancy likes you). The second study compared humiliation with anger and shame (e.g. you said some harsh words to your mother and she cried).

Throughout the reading and imagination process, all participants had an EEG strapped to their scalps which read their brain activity. Two measures particularly interested in the researchers: a larger positive spike (known as the “late positive potential” or LPP); and evidence of “event-related desynchronization”, a marker of reduced activity in the alpha range. Both these measures are signs of greater cognitive processing and cortical activation.

Imagining being humiliated resulted in higher LPPs and more event-related desynchronizations than any other emotion.

“This supports the idea that humiliation is a particularly intense and cognitively demanding negative emotional experience that has far-reaching consequences for individuals and groups alike,” they concluded.

The study tells us that humiliation causes strain on the brain’s resources and mobilizes more brain power, but it doesn’t tell us why this happens. It’s a cause, not an effect. The researchers have yet to identify the mechanism that leads to this neural build-up. Then, the study setting itself wasn’t the best for this kind of evaluation. Imagining your being humiliated or falling in love doesn’t come close to the real thing (you can’t expect to cause genuine feelings of humiliation in a study either). At best, the study does indeed lend credence that humiliation is the master emotion relative to intensity, but it’s far from being a settled thing. Where’s all the love?

The findings appeared in the journal Social Neuroscience.