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Int J Law Psychiatry. 2012 Mar-Apr;35(2):112-20. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.12.001. Epub 2012 Jan 18.

Post traumatic stress disorder, neuroscience, and the law.

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Doctoral School in Comparative and European Legal Studies, University of Trento, Italy.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex psychiatric condition, the effects of which can be seriously debilitating. As it originates from a specific traumatic event, it often impacts soldiers and victims of violent crime. It is currently one of the most frequently litigated mental diseases. Neuroscience is slowly discovering the neural bases of PTSD and other psychiatric ailments and is building tests to distinguish actual patients from non-suffering individuals. We examine the current state of neuroscientific research on PTSD and its biomarkers, focusing on a recent experiment by Apostolos Georgopoulos and coworkers. Then we analyze the legal consequences of these scientific advances, both in civil and criminal law, from a comparative perspective. Neuro-technology is likely to provide courts with a new kind of evidence, which will not replace but add to older behavioral evidence. Furthermore, it will weaken the so far standing distinction between physical and emotional harm. However, even extremely sensitive tests (>95%) can have insufficient accuracy if the prevalence of a condition in the tested population is low. Therefore, the law ought to take into account the prevalence of PTSD and other psychiatric conditions when the decision whether to admit neuro-evidence in courts or not is made.

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