Forensic Science in the Stars: A Protocol for Keeping Space Criminal-free
The neurosciences and especially neurocriminology, whose methodologies are used in the courtroom to understand a defendant’s personality, play an important role in forensic sciences. Could this branch of science be essential in human exploration of space?
This is the challenge the authors of this article introduced last year at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, conceiving a brand new study protocol for creating security procedures designed to safeguard astronauts engaged in long-duration space travel.
When NASA began its operations in 1958, no one could have ever foreseen what would occur over the next 50 years as humans discovered that the sky was no longer a limit. From the Mercury Program (1959) to the International Space Station (1988 to date), NASA has launched more than 100 manned flights. It is now about to enter a new era of space exploration with future missions to Mars. Moreover, it not unreasonable to say that in the next decades, space tourism will become an achievable dream.
Even if no emergency has happened so far, NASA established a partnership in 2002 with the U.S. National Institute of Justice to promote the knowledge of criminalistic techniques in the case of a crime being committed on a space mission. Nonetheless, forensic sciences still remain an understudied topic in space research.
Based on forensic neurosciences, the protocol specifically includes the evaluation of certain brain areas whose anomalies may generate antisocial behavior as well as the use of behavioral genetics to show how biological markers predictive of criminal behavior (polymorphisms) can trigger impulsive reactions in response to stress. This protocol may prove critical when space agencies are evaluating candidates for extra-orbital flights of long duration.
In fact, these kinds of space voyages will subject astronauts to psychological and interpersonal stressors they have never experienced before, such as an unknown level of isolation, issues raised by forced cohabitation and the so-called Earth-out-of-view phenomenon that astronauts engaged in Mars missions will experience for the very first time in human history. All these risk factors can be critical in individuals with genes linked to violent behavior.
Over time, forensic neurosciences have become increasingly important in criminal proceedings. As a result, many courts of justice consider neurobiological and neuroimaging analyses essential to prove a defendant’s sanity. Starting from an analysis of recent case reports, this protocol examines the parameters related to behavioral genetics, neuroanatomy and cognitive physiology that underlie the mechanisms dedicated to controlling impulsive behavior and aggressivity in both a healthy individual and one suffering from psychic disorders.
Within behavioral genetic parameters, the protocol examines the monoaminergic system of an aspiring astronaut. Monoamines (e.g., serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) are the neurotransmitters usually dedicated to controlling impulsivity and aggression. Present at the brain level, they are synthesized by such enzyme actions as MAO-A (on the X chromosome) and catechol O-methyltransferase COMT. Thus, the genetic mutation of the MAO-A enzyme, as a polymorphic version of MAOA-L in the short variant, involves in carrier individuals an inclination toward aggressivity or impulsive acts that may lead to violent anti-social manifestations.
The protocol also examines the candidate’s wa key modulator in serotonergic transmission able to inhibit aggressive behaviors and coding for the serotonin transporter (SERT). Any reduction of serotonin in the brain may therefore result in an increase in impulsive and aggressive behavior.
Lastly, the protocol also examines an aspiring astronaut’s dopaminergic system. Indeed, the dopaminergic circuits are involved in controlling such fundamental functions for emotional behavior as approaching an objective, motivations, attention, learning and gratification. Finding reduced sensitivity in the dopaminergic system may thereby increase pathological aggressive behavior.
The protocol anticipates brain imaging diagnostic tests to assess how brain areas dedicated to controlling violent behavior function. An aspiring astronaut will undergo a computerized EEG analysis that selectively maps electrical activity in specific brain areas; computed tomography (CT); functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); positron emission tomography (PET); magneto-encephalography (MEG), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). The latter examination evaluates information exchange at the synaptic connection level, considering the energy produced in the brain by burning glucose with oxygen. In fact, the glucose and oxygen transported by blood flow to a greater extent to where brain activity is in progress. In this regard, the PET measures glucose consumption, while the fMRI detects the blood flow.
A neuroanatomical analysis of the brain’s structure and its functions instead allows any anomalies in the brain of an aspiring astronaut to be detected. The forebrain, where the cerebral cortex resides, is the area most dedicated to regulating violent behavior. The cerebrum is the seat of the limbic system, the region delegated to emotions. The protocol thus takes into consideration the limbic system, reviewing the literature that analyzes the dysfunction and lesser capabilities of the thalamus, hippocampus, midbrain, prefrontal cortex and amygdala. In particular, the increase of white matter in the corpus callosum or the reduction of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex has been observed in sociopathic individuals with antisocial behaviors.
The protocol also provides for an in-depth analysis of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in controlling and adapting to stress, as well as examining the connections between the limbic system (the seat of emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (impulse control including aggressive impulses). A detailed analysis of the amygdala permits an evaluation of the control of predatory and affective attacks. In fact, the amygdala is involved in emotional generation and its dysfunction. As mentioned, it leads to the manifestation of impulsive or violent behaviors.
For example, a decrease of its volume equal to 18% has been found in sociopathic individuals. The protocol then analyzes hippocampal activity in the regulation of aggressive instincts. This brain region plays a primary role in emotional response in general and in fear conditioning in particular.
Moreover, studies report that reduced hippocampal function is to be placed in relation to high levels of psychopathy. The analysis of the thalamus permits evaluating the connection between the limbic emotional areas and the cortical zones, while an examination of the midbrain in the active phase pertains to the management of aggressive impulsive behaviors. Finally, the investigation of the posterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain located inside the midbrain, allows anger management to be evaluated.
As expected, the protocol examines neurocriminology’s contribution in the field of case law. In particular, the results have been evaluated in the following Italian criminal trials.
The Bayout case
Involved in a fight in 2007 in Udine, an Algerian, under stress, kills the individuals who had provoked him. During the process, anomalies were detected in five of the genes linked to violent behavior, including one gene polymorphism (MAO-A). The Court of Justice declared that being a carrier of the low activity allele for the MAOA gene (MAOA-L) made Bayout “more prone to manifesting impulsive and aggressive behavior if provoked or socially excluded as well as particularly reactive in terms of aggressivity in stressful situations,” (Judgment of the Court of Assizes of Appeal of Trieste (Italy) no. 5 09/18/2009).
The Albertani case
The Criminal Court of Como condemned a woman accused of multiple murders. The neuroscientific investigations verified the alleles associated “with an increased risk of impulsive, aggressive and violent behavior” (from Ruling 05/05/2011 #536), like the low-activity MAO-A allele, SCL6A4 (STin2 polymorphism) and COMT (rs4680 polymorphism). Neuroimaging examinations (including voxel-based morphometry) determined an abnormal density of gray matter in the woman’s brain and in the anterior cingulate. In fact, the volume of gray matter in the anterior cingulate gyrus was abnormal, compared with that in the control group of 10 neurotypical women. As stated, the cingulate gyrus is designed to inhibit automatic and instinctive behaviors as well as regulate aggressive reactions and a propensity to lie in critical situations (Court of Como (Italy), Ruling 05/05/2011 no. 536).
The protocol is thus implemented together with the psychological and aptitude tests usually used in astronaut selection to assess the astronaut candidate’s genetic and neuroanatomical profile. Finally, research supporting the development of this protocol demonstrates the undoubted advantages that forensic sciences and neurocriminology can contribute to an unlikely field like space exploration.
Vincenzo Lusa, JD, is a professor of forensic anthropology at Pontifical University S. Bonaventura in Rome and a professor of Criminal Law at UNISED University (Milan). His main research interests focus on crime responsibility and the neuroscience of intent.
Annarita Franza, Ph.D., is a professor of Anthropology at University of Florence. Her main research interests focus on forensic anthropology and neurocriminology.