Medical-Legal Inferences From Functional Neuroimaging Evidence

Semin Clin Neuropsychiatry. 1996 Jul;1(3):195-201. doi: 10.1053/SCNP00100195.


Positron emission (PET) and single-photon emission tomography (SPECT) are validated functional imaging techniques for the in vivo measurement of many neuro-phsyiological and neurochemical parameters. Research studies of patients with a broad range of neurological and psychiatric illness have been published. Reproducible and specific patterns of altered cerebral blood flow and glucose metabolism, however, have been demonstrated and confirmed for only a limited number of specific illnesses. The association of functional scan patterns with specific deficits is less conclusive. Correlations of regional abnormalities with clinical symptoms such as motor weakness, aphasia, and visual spatial dysfunction are the most reproducible but are more poorly localized than lesion-deficit studies would suggest. Findings are even less consistent for nonlocalizing behavioral symptoms such as memory difficulties, poor concentration, irritability, or chronic pain, and no reliable patterns have been demonstrated. In a forensic context, homicidal and sadistic tendencies, aberrant sexual drive, violent impulsivity, psychopathic and sociopathic personality traits, as well as impaired judgement and poor insight, have no known PET or SPECT patterns, and their presence in an individual with any PET or SPECT scan finding cannot be inferred or concluded. Furthermore, the reliable prediction of any specific neurological, psychiatric, or behavioral deficits from specific scan findings has not been demonstrated. Unambiguous results from experiments designed to specifically examine the causative relationships between regional brain dysfunction and these types of complex behaviors are needed before any introduction of functional scans into the courts can be considered scientifically justified or legally admissible.