Pain Assessment and the Law

Nature News reports on a study that found a correlation between certain brain wave measurements and pain intensity. The not-yet-published study will add to a growing body of neuroscience research that correlates the experience of physical pain with objective findings in brain images and other diagnostic media. This particular study was highly invasive, but a great deal of research involves non-invasive brain imaging. For example, a group of German researchers have reported finding tiny structural changes in the brain associated with chronic back pain using a technology called diffusion tensor imaging.

New pain assessment tools have tremendous potential to improve court and administrative proceedings that relate to personal injury and disability. Right now, juries are frequently called upon to assess damages for pain, even though many people exaggerate symptoms; some claims are entirely malingered. On the other hand, people can also have quite genuine claims for which they have little objective proof. And people with certain mental or motor difficulties may be incapable of telling us about the pain from which they nevertheless suffer. Juries and administrative law judges sometimes have little more to go on than hocus pocus. While we’re a long way from having technologies ready for the courtroom, it’s only a matter of time before courts are confronted with new neurotechnologies purporting to demonstrate the presence, absence, or intensity of pain symptoms.

I discuss these issues in more detail here and will present on these and other issues tomorrow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroethics Talk Series.

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