This is the challenge the authors of
this article introduced last year at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences,
conceiving a brand new study protocol for creating security procedures designed
to safeguard astronauts engaged in long-duration space travel.
When NASA began its operations in 1958,
no one could have ever foreseen what would occur over the next 50 years as
humans discovered that the sky was no longer a limit. From the Mercury Program
(1959) to the International Space Station (1988 to date), NASA has launched
more than 100 manned flights. It is now about to enter a new era of space
exploration with future missions to Mars. Moreover, it not unreasonable to say
that in the next decades, space tourism will become an achievable dream.
Even if no emergency has happened so
far, NASA established a partnership in 2002 with the U.S. National Institute of
Justice to promote the knowledge of criminalistic techniques in the case of a
crime being committed on a space mission. Nonetheless, forensic sciences still
remain an understudied topic in space research.
Based on forensic neurosciences, the
protocol specifically includes the evaluation of certain brain areas whose
anomalies may generate antisocial behavior as well as the use of behavioral
genetics to show how biological markers predictive of criminal behavior
(polymorphisms) can trigger impulsive reactions in response to stress. This
protocol may prove critical when space agencies are evaluating candidates for
extra-orbital flights of long duration.
In fact, these kinds of space voyages
will subject astronauts to psychological and interpersonal stressors they have
never experienced before, such as an unknown level of isolation, issues raised
by forced cohabitation and the so-called Earth-out-of-view phenomenon that
astronauts engaged in Mars missions will experience for the very first time in
human history. All these risk factors can be critical in individuals with genes
linked to violent behavior.
Over time, forensic neurosciences have
become increasingly important in criminal proceedings. As a result, many courts
of justice consider neurobiological and neuroimaging analyses essential to
prove a defendant’s sanity. Starting from an analysis of recent case reports,
this protocol examines the parameters related to behavioral genetics,
neuroanatomy and cognitive physiology that underlie the mechanisms dedicated to
controlling impulsive behavior and aggressivity in both a healthy individual
and one suffering from psychic disorders.
Within behavioral genetic parameters,
the protocol examines the monoaminergic system of an aspiring astronaut.
Monoamines (e.g., serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) are the
neurotransmitters usually dedicated to controlling impulsivity and aggression.
Present at the brain level, they are synthesized by such enzyme actions as
MAO-A (on the X chromosome) and catechol O-methyltransferase COMT. Thus, the
genetic mutation of the MAO-A enzyme, as a polymorphic version of MAOA-L in the
short variant, involves in carrier individuals an inclination toward
aggressivity or impulsive acts that may lead to violent anti-social
The protocol also examines the
candidate’s wa key modulator in serotonergic transmission able to inhibit
aggressive behaviors and coding for the serotonin transporter (SERT). Any
reduction of serotonin in the brain may therefore result in an increase in
impulsive and aggressive behavior.
Lastly, the protocol also examines an aspiring astronaut’s dopaminergic system.
Indeed, the dopaminergic circuits are involved in controlling such fundamental
functions for emotional behavior as approaching an objective, motivations,
attention, learning and gratification. Finding reduced sensitivity in the
dopaminergic system may thereby increase pathological aggressive behavior.
The protocol anticipates brain imaging
diagnostic tests to assess how brain areas dedicated to controlling violent
behavior function. An aspiring astronaut will undergo a computerized EEG
analysis that selectively maps electrical activity in specific brain areas;
computed tomography (CT); functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI);
positron emission tomography (PET); magneto-encephalography (MEG), and single
photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). The latter examination evaluates
information exchange at the synaptic connection level, considering the energy
produced in the brain by burning glucose with oxygen. In fact, the glucose and
oxygen transported by blood flow to a greater extent to where brain activity is
in progress. In this regard, the PET measures glucose consumption, while the
fMRI detects the blood flow.
A neuroanatomical analysis of the
brain’s structure and its functions instead allows any anomalies in the brain
of an aspiring astronaut to be detected. The forebrain, where the cerebral
cortex resides, is the area most dedicated to regulating violent behavior. The
cerebrum is the seat of the limbic system, the region delegated to emotions.
The protocol thus takes into consideration the limbic system, reviewing the
literature that analyzes the dysfunction and lesser capabilities of the
thalamus, hippocampus, midbrain, prefrontal cortex and amygdala. In particular,
the increase of white matter in the corpus callosum or the reduction of gray
matter in the prefrontal cortex has been observed in sociopathic individuals
with antisocial behaviors.
The protocol also provides for an
in-depth analysis of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in controlling and
adapting to stress, as well as examining the connections between the limbic
system (the seat of emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (impulse control
including aggressive impulses). A detailed analysis of the amygdala permits an
evaluation of the control of predatory and affective attacks. In fact, the
amygdala is involved in emotional generation and its dysfunction. As mentioned,
it leads to the manifestation of impulsive or violent behaviors.
For example, a decrease of its volume
equal to 18% has been found in sociopathic individuals. The protocol then analyzes
hippocampal activity in the regulation of aggressive instincts. This brain
region plays a primary role in emotional response in general and in fear
conditioning in particular.
Moreover, studies report that reduced hippocampal function is to be placed in
relation to high levels of psychopathy. The analysis of the thalamus permits
evaluating the connection between the limbic emotional areas and the cortical
zones, while an examination of the midbrain in the active phase pertains to the
management of aggressive impulsive behaviors. Finally, the investigation of the
posterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain located inside the midbrain,
allows anger management to be evaluated.
As expected, the protocol examines
neurocriminology’s contribution in the field of case law. In particular, the
results have been evaluated in the following Italian criminal trials.
The Bayout case
Involved in a fight in 2007 in Udine, an Algerian, under stress, kills the
individuals who had provoked him. During the process, anomalies were detected
in five of the genes linked to violent behavior, including one gene
polymorphism (MAO-A). The Court of Justice declared that being a carrier of the
low activity allele for the MAOA gene (MAOA-L) made Bayout “more prone to manifesting
impulsive and aggressive behavior if provoked or socially excluded as well as
particularly reactive in terms of aggressivity in stressful situations,”
(Judgment of the Court of Assizes of Appeal of Trieste (Italy) no. 5
The Albertani case
The Criminal Court of Como condemned a woman accused of multiple murders. The
neuroscientific investigations verified the alleles associated “with an
increased risk of impulsive, aggressive and violent behavior” (from Ruling
05/05/2011 #536), like the low-activity MAO-A allele, SCL6A4 (STin2
polymorphism) and COMT (rs4680 polymorphism). Neuroimaging examinations
(including voxel-based morphometry) determined an abnormal density of gray
matter in the woman’s brain and in the anterior cingulate. In fact, the volume
of gray matter in the anterior cingulate gyrus was abnormal, compared with that
in the control group of 10 neurotypical women. As stated, the cingulate gyrus
is designed to inhibit automatic and instinctive behaviors as well as regulate
aggressive reactions and a propensity to lie in critical situations (Court of
Como (Italy), Ruling 05/05/2011 no. 536).
The protocol is thus implemented
together with the psychological and aptitude tests usually used in astronaut
selection to assess the astronaut candidate’s genetic and neuroanatomical
profile. Finally, research supporting the development of this protocol
demonstrates the undoubted advantages that forensic sciences and
neurocriminology can contribute to an unlikely field like space exploration.
Vincenzo Lusa, JD, is a professor of forensic anthropology at
Pontifical University S. Bonaventura in Rome and a professor of Criminal Law at
UNISED University (Milan). His main research interests focus on crime
responsibility and the neuroscience of intent.
Annarita Franza, Ph.D., is a professor of Anthropology at University of
Florence. Her main research interests focus on forensic anthropology and