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February 11, 2003
New 'Brain Fingerprinting' Could Help Solve Crimes


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— By Alan Elsner, National Correspondent

FAIRFIELD, Iowa (Reuters) - A technique called "brain fingerprinting," which seeks to probe whether a suspect has specific knowledge of a crime, could become a powerful weapon in national security, its inventor believes.

Lawrence Farwell, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist who founded Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories Inc. 12 years ago and runs the company from a small town in southern Iowa, believes the technique could emerge as the next big thing in law enforcement and intelligence.

"From a scientific perspective, we can definitively say that brain fingerprinting could have substantial benefits in identifying terrorists or in exonerating people accused of being terrorists," Farwell said.

But first the controversial technique, which has had some success, must overcome the skepticism of some experts who are reluctant to embrace it.

Brain fingerprinting works by measuring and analyzing split-second spikes in electrical activity in the brain when it responds to something it recognizes.

For example, if a suspected murderer was shown a detail of the crime scene that only he would know, his brain would involuntarily register that knowledge. Under Farwell's system, that brain activity is picked up through electrodes attached to the suspect's scalp and measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG) as a waveform.

A person who had never seen that crime scene would show no reaction.

Many scientists have studied the initial spike in brain activity, known as the p300, that peaks at between 300 and 500 milliseconds in response to a stimulus. Farwell's contribution was to develop something he calls the MERMER (Memory and Encoding Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response) that measures the pattern of brain response up to 1,200 milliseconds after the stimulus has been administered.


In 1999, Farwell used his technique to solve a 1984 murder in Missouri. Police strongly suspected a local woodcutter, James Grinder, of kidnapping, raping and murdering Julie Helton, a 25 year-old woman, but had lacked the evidence to convict him. He agreed to undergo brain fingerprinting to demonstrate his innocence.

Farwell flashed on a computer screen details of the crime that only the murderer would have known, including items taken from the victim, where the victim's body was located, items left at the crime scene and details of the wounds on the body of the victim.

"What his brain said was that he was guilty," he said. "He had critical, detailed information only the killer would have. The murder of Julie Helton was stored in his brain, and had been stored there 15 years ago when he committed the murder."

Grinder pleaded guilty a week later in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, avoiding the death penalty. He also confessed to three other murders of young women.

In 2000, brain fingerprinting underwent its first legal challenge in the case of Terry Harrington, an Iowa man who had spent 23 years in prison for the 1978 murder of a security guard. Farwell's tests suggested conclusively that Harrington was innocent since he did not have knowledge of the crime scene.

The judge in the case admitted the evidence but did not free the suspect, saying it was not clear test results would have led to a different verdict in the original trial. The case is before the Supreme Court of Iowa.

Farwell has done work for both the FBI and the CIA and has been contacted by foreign governments, including some in the Middle East.

Still, critics are dismissive.


"It's pure snake oil. There's no evidence you can determine evil intent or anything else from brain fingerprinting. It's the 21st century version of the lie detector test, which also doesn't work very well," said Barry Steinhardt, who directs a technology program for the American Civil Liberties Union.

A General Accounting Office report in 2001 found that CIA, FBI, Department of Defense and Secret Service officials did not at this stage foresee using brain fingerprinting because of the expertise needed to employ the technique and because it would likely be of limited usefulness.

The CIA, for example, explained that to administer brain fingerprinting, an investigator would have to know enough details of a particular event to test an individual for knowledge of that event. In counterintelligence, such specific details are not always available.

Farwell countered by citing a 1993 test he conducted for the FBI in which he identified 11 FBI agents from a group of 15 people. "If we can detect someone trained by the FBI, we should be able to detect someone trained by al Qaeda," he said.

However, just like lie detector tests, the technique requires the cooperation of the subject. A suspect could simply refuse to cooperate by closing his eyes and refusing to watch the prompts flashed on the screen before him.

If and when the technique is widely accepted, a judge may have to decide whether to admit test results as evidence.

Independent scientists contacted by the GAO investigators raised various objections to brain fingerprinting and said it needed more work into issues such as how memory was affected by drugs and alcohol, mental illness and extreme anxiety during crime situations.

Still, William Iacono, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, said he was confident that brain fingerprinting would eventually establish itself for many applications, including the investigation of carefully planned premeditated crimes.

Meanwhile, Farwell is pressing on. He wants to explore the use of brain fingerprinting to detect and monitor the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

He also sees commercial interest from advertisers anxious to measure how effective their commercials are, which parts are remembered and which forgotten.

"It takes time for new technologies to win acceptance, but it's only a matter of time," he said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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