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
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
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
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
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
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.
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