Mad or bad: can we tackle aggression with brain stimulation?

It could come straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian movie A Clockwork Orange: using direct brain stimulation to reduce aggressive behaviour. For PhD student Ruben Knehans, it’s his daily business. Aside from the medical complexity, it raises all sorts of questions. Is it ethical, for example, to modify someone's behaviour? Can you justify imposing brain stimulation on convicts under criminal law? How to set rules and standards? Ruben tries to answer these questions in his PhD research at UM’s Faculty of Law.

Ruben studied law and psychology and followed up with a master's degree in forensics, criminology and criminal law at Maastricht University. In his PhD research, he combines his experiences from both worlds. “This makes the research varied and therefore continuously challenging.” He is investigating whether it is possible to reduce aggressive behaviour with brain stimulation and, if so, how we can apply this in practice. This new branch in legal research is known as Neurolaw. Maastricht University is proud of this type of interdisciplinary research collaboration between faculties and of the social benefits that result from it.

From medical issue to criminal dilemma

Brain stimulation in the medical sense is not new. For years, researchers have been investigating what can be done in or around the brain to remedy diseases like Parkinson's. This disease can be treated with deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are placed in the brain. It requires complex surgery, but the techniques are constantly being improved upon. We can now achieve positive behavioural results with electric pulses and magnetic fields outside the skull: non-invasive direct brain stimulation.

The latter technique is already being incorporated into the treatment of people with clinical depression. Magnetic brain stimulation reduces their symptoms. “These developments have made experts in other fields ask themselves whether they could also apply brain stimulation. There are increasing numbers of researchers worldwide assessing the clinical and forensic value of neuroscience instruments. We may then be able to incorporate these tools into criminal law. I am one of those researchers”, says Ruben.

This work is of great social importance. “We are always searching for ways to reduce crime and recidivism, for example, by increasing the number of police officers or cameras on the streets to deter criminals. But also through treatment programmes to ensure that criminals do not fall back into bad behaviour.”

Jodi Bel (Letterdesk)

“But if someone is ‘bad’, deliberately aggressive because it fits someone’s norms and values, then it’s a different story. Forcibly changing someone’s norms and values clashes with the value that we place on individuality and autonomy. So, maybe, we should just accept that this is how someone thinks, as long as they don't hurt others.”

In his PhD research, Ruben is constantly looking for the right balance. It is a process of weighing, reconsidering and taking a different perspective.

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