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Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Michael Jackson, Abuse, and the Experiential Future (Kolber)

USE_THIS_crim_prof_photo A fascinating study in Nature Neuroscience from earlier this year may have identified biological markers of childhood trauma in the brains of adults.  Researchers examined brain tissue from three groups of people: (1) 12 suicide victims who had been abused as children; (2) 12 suicide victims who had no history of childhood abuse; and (3) 12 control subjects with no history of abuse who died from causes other than suicide.  Remarkably, the researchers identified epigenetic activity in the group that committed suicide and had been abused that they didn't see in the other two groups.

The research holds out the potential that certain kinds of childhood trauma may have lasting effects on gene expression in the brain (and possibly elsewhere) that can potentially be identified.  The research is at the earliest stages, however.  There are about a million caveats (e.g., the research looks at features of groups of brains and not features of individual brains, removal of brain tissue is only practical for cadavers, the research has yet to be replicated, there were small sample sizes, any sort of trauma might trigger the epigenetic activity, etc.). 

Someday, however, we may develop more reliable markers of childhood trauma or abuse.  We currently have all sorts of methods of demonstrating physical abuse, but there is often no easily-observable physical evidence of sexual abuse.  In the future, we may be able to provide biological markers of childhood abuse that could help inculpate an alleged abuser.  (More likely, the absence of such markers might be some evidence to exculpate an alleged abuser.)  How might such a technology be relevant in a scenario similar to one raised by the death of Michael Jackson?  See here.  

-AJK

(Originally posted at Prawfsblawg.)

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