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Neurointerventions and Crime Prevention

The Carlsberg Foundation's 'Semper Ardens' Fellowships within the Humanities and Social Sciences | 21/06/2019

Can it be justified to use neuroscientific technologies for influencing the human functioning brain as a means of preventing offenders from engaging in future criminal conduct? It has been possible for the first time to provide a comprehensive analysis of the various ethical challenges surrounding this question.

By dr.phil & Ph.D. Jesper Ryberg, Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Law at Roskilde University, and head of the Research Group for Criminal Justice Ethics

Over the last couple of years, an increasing number of philosophers, legal scholars and criminologists have become preoccupied with the idea of using neurointerventions – that is, interventions which in one way or another operate directly on the brain of a subject – as a possible way of preventing offenders from engaging in future criminal activity. Whether this possibility would in some cases constitute a desirable approach to crime prevention or whether it should rather be seen as a shocking example of how scientists can be led astray by following a path that should have been left untrodden, is a highly controversial issue.

… it has been shown that certain neurotransmitters have an impact on trusting behavior. And that some drugs have an effect on our moral judgements.

With the grant I have received from the Carlsberg Foundation, it has been possible to write the first singly-authored monograph providing a thorough investigation of the various ethical issues that arise in relation to crime-preventive use of neurointerventions.

Why consider this issue?

“Being disturbingly informative – harnessing the power of the criminal corpse”. 19th century illustration of the phrenologist F. J. Gall in discussion with five colleagues.

The idea of an association between criminal behavior and the functioning of the brain is far from new. For instance, nineteenth-century views on crime were heavily influenced by theories of, respectively, the abnormal brain, the atavist brain, and the degenerated brain. 

Correspondingly, throughout the 20the century there have been various attempts at preventing crime through some sort of medical procedure.

However, it is today a well-known fact that these theories and procedures were associated with naive science and tragic practice. What has led to the revivification of the discussion of in the modern era – and what has constituted the impetus behind my research – is the combination of an increasing insight into the functioning of the brain and a corresponding intensified research in ways of influencing the human mind through brain interventions.

“The idea of treating of curing criminal offenders is far from new. For instance, a 1939-volume of the magazine Popular Science asked: “Can new discoveries about the brain reclaim a million criminals? Can psychological research cut America’s crime bill in half? Can scientists, using drugs and surgery, eliminate dishonest impulses from the minds of crooks?” (vol. 135, p. 45).

Many studies, in recent years, have been conducted to explore how pharmaceutical drugs – and other ways of influencing the brain – affect the social behavior and moral decision-making of humans in general and offenders in particular. 

For instance, it has been shown that certain neurotransmitters have an impact on trusting behavior. And that some drugs have an effect on our moral judgements. Furthermore, several studies have been conducted on how SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may function as a means of controlling impulsive violent behavior.

However, with an increasing insight in how drugs and other procedures might influence human behaviour, for instance by improving impulse control and reducing aggression, it becomes obvious to ask if it can be justified to apply such techniques in criminal justice practice.

What are the challenges?

“Deep Brain Stimulation. A recent Spanish study has explored the use of DBS in patients suffering from severe cases of unprovoked aggressive behaviour.”

The theoretical challenges that arise from possibility of using neurointerventions in crime prevention depends much on how precisely such interventions are applied. Some of the main questions that I have explored are the following. 

Would it be acceptable to offer reduced sentences to offenders in return for participation in a treatment program involving neurointerventions? Or would such offers be unacceptably coercive? Could it ever be justified to use compulsory treatment? And could the imposition of a neurointervention in itself function as a type of punishment? 

Beyond these questions it has only been important to address questions such as: Would it be acceptable for physicians to be involved in crime-preventive treatment of offenders?

Vacaville State Prison in California. Several terrible experiments involving neurointerventions were conducted on prisoners at Vacavilla State Prison during the 1960s.

And what is the moral significance of the fact that the idea of using neurointerventions as an instrument in crime prevention carries a very dark prehistory?

The results

The involvement of physicians in ways of dealing with offenders that go beyond standard therapeutic treatment has usually been rejected by medical associations. For instance, in relation to death penalty the World Medical Association holds that “It is unethical for physicians to participate in capital punishment, in any way, or during any step of the execution process …” (WMA 2008).

The grant has made it possible to address all these questions, to present criteria for the proper use of neurointerventions in crime prevention, and – hopefully – contribute to avoiding a situation in which criminal justice systems are overwhelmed or unprepared for the plethora of new possibilities that research in neurotechnology will no doubt bring in the future.


The grant that Jesper Ryberg has received has resulted in the monograph:

Ryberg, J. (2019), Neurointerventions, Crime, and Punishment: Ethical Considerations, New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).

Other works on this issue

Ryberg, J. (2018), “Neuroscientific Treatment of Criminals and Penal Theory”, in D. Birks & T. Douglas (eds.), Treatment for Crime, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ryberg, J. and T. S. Petersen (2017), “Neuroethics and Criminal Justice”, in K. Lippert-Rasmussen et al. (eds.), A Companion to Applied Philosophy, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.