Forensic Neuroscience and Psychiatry

What We Do

The interest in understanding the origins of criminal behaviour goes far back in time, to the controversial theories of Franz Josef Gall and Cesare Lombroso. Since then, some improvements and discoveries were achieved, and nowadays the body of research in forensic psychiatry has grown substantially, specially thanks to the contributions of neuroscience. In fact, despite the radical view that both Gall and Lombroso had, they got the right intuition, confirmed by recent research: the predisposition to offend (or to act in a certain way) can be associated with genetic, hormonal and neurobiological factors.

For this reason neuroscience has become the tool to investigate the source of such offending behaviour, trying to understand its motives and causes.The broader scope of Forensic Neuroscience is then to investigate the brain functioning of offenders or, more generally, the neural basis and the mechanisms that lead to break norms (social or moral) and to behave differently from the majority of people.

Therefore, our research line in Forensic Neuroscience and Psychiatry aims to shed new light on the biological and genetic underpinnings of human behaviour. To reach our goal, we combine behavioural, genetic, physiological and imaging tools, investigating the roots of aggression, pro-sociality and personality disorders.


  • The genetic basis of pro- and anti-social behavior

  • Functional frontal fragility and social behavior

  • Machine learning techniques and malingering (Univerità di Padova)

  • Personality disorders

Who We Are

Principal InvestigatorFull Professor, MD, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
Research CollaboratorScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
PhD Student
PhD Student

What We Publish

Neural Correlates of Imaginal Aggressive Behavior assessed by Positron Emission Tomography in Healty Subjects

Pietrini, P., Guazzelli, M., Basso, G., Jaffe, K., Graffman, J.Am J Psychiatry, 2000. DOI:
OBJECTIVE: Neurodegenerative or traumatic lesions of the frontal lobes often lead to abnormally aggressive behavior. The authors hypothesized that the imaginal evoking of scenarios involving aggressive behavior would be associated with a modulation of the functional activity in the human frontal cortex. METHOD: Regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) determinations by positron emission tomography and psychophysiological measures of emotional responsivity were obtained in a group of 15 young healthy volunteers with good visual imagery abilities and no history of abnormal behavior while they imagined the same scenario with four variations involving emotionally neutral behavior and aggressive behavior. RESULTS: Compared to the imagined neutral scenario, the imagined scenarios involving aggressive behavior were associated with significant emotional reactivity and rCBF reductions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, suggesting that a functional deactivation of this cortical area occurs when individuals respond to the eliciting of imagined aggressive behavior. CONCLUSIONS: These results in healthy subjects further expand previous findings from animal and human studies by providing an in vivo functional demonstration of the involvement of the orbitofrontal cortex in the expression of aggressive behavior. They are also consistent with the hypothesis that a functional alteration of this cortical region may be present in individuals with pathological aggressive behavior.

The Role of Neuroscience in the Evaluation of Mental Insanity: on the Controversies in Italy

Scarpazza, C., Pellegrini, S., Pietrini, P., Sartori, G. Neuroethics, 2017. DOI:
In the present manuscript, we comment upon a paper that strongly criticized an expert report written by the consultants of the defense (two of the authors of the present paper, PP and GS) in a case of pedophilia, in which clinical and neuro-scientific data were used to establish the causal link between brain alterations and onset of criminal behavior. These critiques appear to be based mainly on wrong pieces of information and on a misinterpretation of the logical reasoning adopted by defense consultants. Here we provide a point-by-point reply to the issues raised in the above paper and also discuss the potential role that neuroscience may contribute in the forensic context. Did the forensic neuroscience defense consultants claim the existence of a deterministic relationship between brain structure or function and behavior? How did the neuroscientific logic work in his specific case? How may the classic psychiatric/ neurologic examination and neuroscientific evidence work side by side? Does the rarity of a disease impact on the causal relationship between the disease and the crime? Do neuroscientific data need to be interpreted? We address the above questions and conclude that neuroscience may strengthen the results of psychiatric evaluations, thus reducing uncertainty in the forensic settings.

Neurobiological Correlates of Antisocial Human Behavior

Zampieri. I., Pellegrini, S., Pietrini, P.Neuroscience and Law (book chapter), 2020. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-38840-9_21
Abstract The recent development of behavioral neurosciences has fostered the study of the biological correlates that subtend the mental processes involved in moral choices and social behavior. For the sake of simplicity, human behavior can be considered as the resultant of instinctual/emotional factors on one hand and critical reasoning on the other. When this balance becomes defective, either because of emotional dysfunction and/or impaired critical ability, individuals may express abnormal behaviors, including impulsive and aggressive acts. Overall, responsibility requires the integrity of multiple emotional, cognitive and behavioral abilities. Individuals with lesions of the anterior portion of the brain, including patients with the behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), offer a valid model to investigate the neural bases underlying responsibility and behavior. These patients invariably show a progressive loss of the ability to control their instincts and impulses, to modulate their behavior, to respect moral laws, along with affective flattening. We argue that the co-occurrence of peculiar genetic, neurobiological and environmental factors may result in a condition of Functional Frontal Fragility, even in individuals who do not present, and may never present, any bvFTD. In view of evidence coming from neuroscience, the question of the extent to which individuals are free and responsible of their actions has found a renewed vigor. The issue reconnects to the millenary debate in the ethical and philosophical realm on free will versus determinism—a debate whose echo resonates in the courtroom. The capability to distinguish good from bad and to decide to act in one way or another is the foundation of the criminal justice system. Indeed, on such a foundation, retributive jurisprudence, typical of all modern societies, bases culpa- bility and imputability.

Our Collaborations

  • Dipartimento di Psicologia Generale - Prof. Giuseppe Sartori and Cristina Scarpazza - Università degli Studi di Padova, Italy

  • Dipartimento di Medicina Clinica e Sperimentale - Prof.ssa Silvia Pellegrini and collaborators - Università di Pisa, Italy

  • AXES Research Unit - Behavioral Economic group - Prof. Ennio Bilancini and collaborators - IMT Scuola Alti Studi Lucca, Italy

  • MoMiLab Research Unit - SPACE group - Prof. Giulio Bernardi and collaborators - IMT Scuola Alti Studi Lucca, Italy

What We Develop


Our Talks

Author - Talk title. Conference, Place, Date Year.