In the New Yorker article, “the Neuroscience of Pain: Brain imaging is illuminating the neural patterns behind pain’s infinite variety” the author Nicole Twilley discusses the state of medical imaging in capturing a person’s pain.

Pain is neurologically complex. It involves responses generated throughout the brain. Dr. Irene Tracey has been studying the use of fMRI in displaying a person’s pain. An fMRI tracks neural activity by measuring changes associated with the flow of blood as it carries oxygen through the brain. “A busy neuron requires more oxygen, and, because oxygenated and deoxygenated blood have different magnetic properties, neural activity creates a detectable disturbance in the magnetic field of an MRI scanner.”

The scientists Twilley spoke to stressed that an fMRI scan is currently not advanced enough to be used in court. However, it is predicted by some that in 10 years the technology will be advanced enough to be used in court. The technology could be used to show if someone is actually experiencing chronic pain or if they are lying for financial gain.

He predicts that, once researchers have collected enough data and developed standardized protocols, neuroimaging will follow in the path of forensic DNA—a scientific breakthrough whose results were eventually considered robust enough to use as evidence in court.

However, some skeptics doubt the reliability of fMRI for court use. Obtaining an image through a fMRI machine requires a person to be in an unnatural setting. They are lying horizontal and immobile in a loud machine in a claustrophobic environment. Furthermore, a fMRI is like black-and-white stills of a movie. It cannot completely capture the activity of neurons.

(Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization.)