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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Man's Brain Tumor May Impact Law

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia -- There was something wrong with the schoolteacher with the headache -- doctors could see that from the start.

Though charming and intelligent, the 40-year-old man couldn't stop leering at female nurses. He had been in trouble with the law for sexual advances toward his stepdaughter, and now he was talking about raping his landlady.

University of Virginia Medical Center neurologists Russell Swerdlow and Jeffrey Burns had never seen a case like this. The man had an egg-sized brain tumor pressing on the right frontal lobe. When surgeons removed it, the lewd behavior and pedophilia faded away. Exactly why, the surgeons cannot explain.

The outcome raises questions not only about how tumors alter brain function, but also how they can influence behavior and judgment.

As such, the case study may vast implications for the criminal justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing mentally retarded murderers is unconstitutionally cruel because of their diminished ability to reason and control their urges.

Chris Adams, a death penalty specialist for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, thinks the next logical step would be to include people who have brain tumors.

"Some people simply don't have the frontal lobe capacity to stop what they're doing," he said.

Human behavior is governed by complex interactions within the brain. But scientists think most "executive functions" -- decisions with major consequences -- are controlled within the frontal lobes.

Tumors in that area can squeeze enough blood from the region to effectively put it to sleep, dulling someone's judgment in a way similar to drinking too much alcohol.