Rehabilitating Criminals’ Brains with Implants

September 3, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Police officer handcuffing a man
Photo credit: Keith Allison/Flickr/

Radical new technology could make it possible to rehabilitate the brains of prisoners with brain implants. But is it ethical?

Although the crimes that reap the death penalty are especially heinous, the end-all punishment has been long scrutinized. Could Science provide an alternative?

Neuroscience, specifically in the field of optogenetics, has made huge strides in the possibility of using brain implants* to control or alter specific areas in the brain. By using remote devices, scientists can deliver drugs to treat specific mental disorders or control neural activity through the use of targeted light. Applying this concept to brain rehabilitation among prison inmates opens a world of possibilities or, on the other hand, creates a dystopian future where criminals would be manufactured to live on autopilot.

It’s likely* that in the next two decades, the prevalence of cranial implants will rise. They will be able to send signals to the brain that manipulate behaviors, such as violent actions and out-of-control impulses. In fact, this type of brain technology is already on the market with a new wearable device called Thync.

Thync, a wellness device, guarantees to either calm or energize users with a technology called neurosignaling. The devices sends pulsations to the user’s brain to activate nerves on the face and dial down stress responses. Thync plans to work with research groups to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorders, and high anxiety levels. While this works on a scale that is most likely milder than the kind of rehabilitation that criminals need, it demonstrates where we’re headed as a society with brain-affecting technologies.

A study* on the effectiveness of rational-emotive therapy among inmates disclosed that 85 percent of crime is committed by repeat offenders. If no type of brain rehabilitation is done, it’s slim to none that serious offenders will learn from their mistakes. According to a number of sources in the study, offenders often exhibit personality traits such as anger, hostility, suspiciousness, impulsivity, social withdrawal, and lack of self-control. These are the types of characteristics that would be targeted by the cranial implants and brain rehabilitation.

While some may denounce brain implants as being too invasive and extreme, it can’t be ignored that, in many prisons, criminals’ minds are already being altered in different ways. Many prisoners are given powerful drugs that sedate and calm their violent tendencies and mental defects. Some endure such inhumane mental and physical abuse that in itself causes brain alteration, even worsening existing mental defects.

The rate of incarceration and recidivism is on a steady rise, demonstrating that our current system isn’t providing the rehabilitation and therapy that are needed to improve its state. Billions of dollars generated by US taxpayers are spent annually to keep criminals in jail, many with no chance to get out or waiting decades for their execution date.

A valid argument against using brain technology to rehabilitate prisoners’ brains is that it could result in a completely altered consciousness. How can we make sure that criminals are still their true selves after these procedures?

The debate remains in the evaluation of what’s worse: going through brain alterations, either willfully or forced, or being given no chance at rehabilitation and dying via execution? The future of crime and punishment will inevitably change because of technology so, even if the answer isn’t brain correction with radical technology, there may be other solutions that don’t result in killing human beings.

If you liked this article, read about technologies that can remotely control brains.

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