Spain: brain zap prison experiment suspended

Government officials in Spain have suspended tests to see if zapping the brains of prisoners can make them less aggressive, following an exclusive report by New Scientist on the experiment.

The research, involving inmates at Huelva prison, was scheduled to begin this month. The day after New Scientist reported details of the planned experiment, the Spanish interior ministry told journalists that the tests will now be suspended.

The government says that permission for the experiments was given by the previous government and it wants to find out more about the study before it is allowed to proceed. The interior ministry says the move is a precaution, and that it has asked its office for prison health to investigate and report back.

The trial, which was approved by prison officials and a university ethics committee, was to test the impact of small electrical current passed into the frontal lobe brain regions of male prisoners, including some serving murder sentences.

Psychologists wanted to deliver three 15-minute sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) and see if it changed levels of the men’s self-reported aggression. All were volunteers.

Some bioethicists in Spain have supported the study and its goals. But experts elsewhere have raised concerns about prisoners feeling coerced into participating.

Andrés Molero Chamizo, the psychologist at Huelva University who leads the project, says the government hasn’t contacted him. “We do not know the reasons. We need to wait and see what happens.”

The Spanish press “has generated a non-scientific debate that is damaging the study”, says Molero Chamizo.

Original approval for the study was granted by the then-ruling People’s Party, which was kicked out of government after a corruption scandal and vote of no-confidence last year. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is now in charge, but has called a general election for next month.

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