The concept of predicting crime before it happens conjures up dystopian science fiction like "Minority Report," but a new neuroimaging study claims to have done just that.

Researchers from The Mind Research Network (MRN) in New Mexico say they predicted convicted criminals' likelihood of committing repeat offenses after being released from prison, using a neural "biomarker for persistent antisocial behavior" based on data from brain scans.

The study, published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a frontal brain area related to impulsivity and decision-making. The researchers found that in a sample of 96 male convicted felons, the ones with relatively low ACC activity were twice as likely to commit repeat crimes as felons with high activity in that region.

"These findings have incredibly significant ramifications for the future of how our society deals with criminal justice and offenders," said Dr. Kent A. Kiehl, the study's senior author and director of mobile imaging at MRN, in a news release from Duke University.

"Not only does this study give us a tool to predict which criminals may reoffend and which ones will not reoffend, it also provides a path forward for steering offenders into more effective targeted therapies to reduce the risk of future criminal activity."

In the study, volunteer felons completed computer behavioral tasks designed to measure impulsivity while they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. After the felons were released from prison in 2007, investigators tracked police records for the next four years to see whether they were repeat offenders.

The results showed that those felons with lower ACC activity "had a 2.6-fold higher rate of rearrest for all crimes and a 4.3-fold higher rate for nonviolent crimes," according to Nature News.

The researchers wrote in their paper that the ACC is "associated with error processing, conflict monitoring, response selection, and avoidance learning." Humans with anterior cingulate damage have been "shown to produce changes in disinhibition, apathy, and aggressiveness. Indeed, ACC-damaged patients have been classed in the 'acquired psychopathic personality' genre."

Study collaborator Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong of Duke University said in the news release that the results "point the way toward a promising method of neuroprediction with great practical potential in the legal system." He acknowledges that the technique is incomplete, but hopes that the research could "help to make our criminal justice system more effective."

Neuroimaging is still not a perfect tool, especially not for predicting crimes before they happen- a recent Stanford University report pointed out that traditional fMRI analysis methods are often unreliable, and can be skewed to suggest particular conclusions about brain activation.

Robert T. Gonzalez of io9 elaborates on those technical issues, and raises ethical concerns about predictions based on neuroimaging:

"Someone with low ACC activity is not guaranteed to commit a crime that lands him back in prison. This eliminates the possibility of the scan being employed in a Minority Report scenario, used to determine which prisoners are released and which are kept behind bars. At the same time, it raises significant ethical issues about the technique's use in dictating a prisoner's sentence (a prisoner flagged as being at high risk of reoffense might, for instance, be administered stricter parole terms)."

He goes on to suggest that more developed neuroimaging methods of predicting crimes before they happen may not be much more valid than polygraph testing, which the American Psychological Association has debunked as a reliable method of lie detection

The researchers acknowledge such civil rights concerns in their paper's discussion section, but are hopeful that their research can be useful to the criminal justice system.

In his public statement, Kiehl is enthusiastic about the ability to "see on an MRI a part of the brain that might not be working correctly," and determine whether a felon is more likely to exhibit the impulsive and antisocial behavior that can lead to repeat crimes.

He raises the possibility of treatments that might increase activity in the ACC brain region, thereby increasing high-risk felons' ability to control their criminal impulses.

Whatever the implications, it's clear that the research has a long way to go before its ethical considerations can be fully considered in the criminal justice arena.

"This isn't ready for prime time," Kiehl told Nature News.