Fact Sheet: Forensic Neuropsychology

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful.
About the authors: This article was written by Pawel Banas, EAPL-S representative for Poland and Ph.D. student at Jagiellonian University (Poland).

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What is forensic neuropsychology?

Neuropsychologists try to show how behavior is mirrored in brain functions. Forensic neuropsychologists try to show the relationship between brain function and criminal behavior. This field of study is relatively young and research-based as it is still of rather uncertain practical value (yet very promising). However, especially in the U.S., increasing attention has been drawn to the field, mostly regarding its application to insanity defense cases [1]. While neuroimaging may one day help us determine criminal responsibility, the overarching question remains an ethical and philosophical one; Should individuals with brain-based disorders be held responsible for their antisocial behavior? Can we alleviate responsibility for certain disorders? As of now, these questions are philosophical as the neuronal basis of criminal/antisocial conduct has yet to be discovered [2].

Crime-related brain areas

Studies done to date suggest that there might be some connection between impairment found within certain areas of brain and antisocial personality disorder (APD) or psychopathy. Brain damage may also contribute to an inability to control anger or disorganized thought. Even if the meaning of this connection is not yet understood, the results of neuropsychological assessments may still serve as an important factor when determining risk to reoffend and overall functioning. Brain structures/areas commonly associated with APD or psychopathy include [3]:

  • Prefrontal cortex (primarily medial and ventromedial sections)
  • Amygdala and Hippocampus
  • Temporal lobe

And, to a lesser extent:

  • Corpus Callosum
  • Angular Gyrus

Especially the ventromedial prefrontal and limbic areas have received much attention. It is also worth noting that psychopathy is defined by two factors: antisocial behavior (which is associated with prefrontal areas and problems with inhibition) and lack of emotions (associated with amygdale and the limbic system). Research indicating that psychopaths often do not respond to treatment further strengthens this association between brain dysfunction and psychopathy. Psychopathy is often cited as the single greatest predictor of repeat offending [4], especially violent offending [5] and increased knowledge into the biological basis of it could be incredibly informative for psychologists and the legal system.

Some of the main brain structures associated with criminal behavior:

Real-world application

Forensic neuropsychology may be useful for determining insanity or when assessing prisoners prior to their release from a prison or jail. From a practical point of view there is no difference between typical neuropsychological testing and testing conducted in forensic settings. Neuropsych testing (in any setting) can help us gain insight into an offender’s basic capacities for language, memory, perception, attention and other cognitive functions.

When applied to forensics, neuropsychological assessment may be useful in determining whether an individual is a developmental or acquired psychopath (as in the famous case of Phineas Gage) which is an important factor in violence risk assessment. Also, prisoners with certain brain impairments (e.g. vmPFC impairment) may require a different approach in therapy due to their unique needs[6].

Neuropsychological assessment might also be useful in diagnosing diseases that may sometimes result in antisocial, but not always criminal, behavior (e.g., some dementias and brain tumors).

Tools commonly used in forensic neuropsychology are those assessing executive function like the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test or the Trail Making Test.


Forensic neuropsychology is quickly becoming a central area of research in the study of criminal behavior. Understanding the biological roots of antisocial thinking and behavior can give us insight into offender risk and rehabilitation. It also offers us information on early development and prevention of these types of brain abnormalities in childhood. It is important for practitioners and researchers to understand that for some offenders crime may be less of a choice than the legal system would like to believe.

Quick summary

  • Forensic neuropsych is the study of how brain function relates to crime.
  • There is a connection between APD/psychopathy and prefrontal cortex function.
  • Neuropsych tests might soon be useful in assessing insanity or risk, and deciding on appropriate therapies.

Where can I get more information?

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1.     Tallis, R (2007). My Brain Made Me Do It: Biology and Freedom at the Battle of Ideas. The Sunday Times Online: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article2726643.ece

2.     Perlin, M. L., & McClaln, V. R. (2010). Unasked (and unanswered) questions about the role of neuroimaging in the criminal trial process. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 28(4), 5-22.

3.     Raine, A., Yang, Y. (2006). The Neuroanatomical Bases of Psychopathy: A Review of Brain Imaging Findings. [in]: Patrick, Ch. J. (ed.) Handbook of psychopathy. New York: Guiford Press.

4.     Hare, R. D. (2003). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist— Revised, 2nd Edition. Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi- Health Systems.

5.     Wahlund, K., & Kristiansson, M. (2009). Aggression, psychopathy and brain imaging—Review and future recommendations. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32(4), 266-271. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2009.04.007

6.     Harris, T.G., Rice, E. M. (2006). Treatment of Psychopathy: A Review of Empirical Findings. [in]: Patrick, Ch. J. (ed.) Handbook of psychopathy. New York: Guiford Press.

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Overview of Fact Sheet topics covered to date