Report on military applications of neuroscience examines technologies and ethics

[From Wired’s Danger Room blog; a 5:16 minute video from the Royal Society is available here]

Neuroscientists to Top Brass: Mess With Minds… Carefully

By Katie Scott,
February 7, 2012

A working group led by the Royal Society has warned the scientific community and the Government to tread carefully when entering the ethical minefield that is the use of neuroscience.

A report published today by the Royal Society tackles the divisive issue of the potential uses of neuroscience research by the military or security forces — whether to improve the performance of our troops, to “diminish” the performance of the enemy or, perhaps most controversially, in law enforcement.

The paper, entitled Brain Waves Module 3: Neuroscience, conflict and security, is one of four that have been published looking at the current and potential impact of neuroscience on society and policy, the law, and education.

This, the final report to be released, looks at the neuroscience research that is already being deployed by the military and what is being developed.

In a military context, the report authors have looked at the potential and current uses of neuroscience in every step of a soldier’s career, from recruitment to rehabilitation after injury. There are neuroimaging techniques that could help determine the best recruit for the role based on their propensity for risk-taking or specific skills that could help them train in a specialist area, for example, reconnaissance.

It also discusses the benefits of using brain stimulation technology to improve learning; and neuropharmacological agents to enhance cognition or attenuate effects of sleep deprivation, or treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The potential of neural interface systems (NIS) — a person controlling a computer with their mind — could go beyond “the restoration of function to individuals with sensory or motor deficits” (such as Braingate), says the report. “The ability to control a machine directly with the human brain could, for example, provide the potential to remotely operate robots or unmanned vehicles in hostile territory.”

However, NIS could also be deployed on a smaller scale as sensory enhancers, add the authors. They state: “For example, research has been conducted on the ability of individuals to feel the heat and distance of an object of interest in a room by a simple procedure involving a small magnetic implant on a fingertip or anywhere else on the human body. Placing a small coil of wire around the finger can cause the magnet to vibrate. If the coil is connected up to an external sensor then signals from the sensor will alter the vibrations of the magnet, which are detected by the recipient.

“In this way a sonar sensor or an infrared sensor can be used to operate with the magnet — hence the recipient ‘feels’ how far away an object is or remotely ‘feels’ how hot an object is. Unobtrusive neural interfaces like these sensory implants might provide an edge to the law enforcement fields in small but tangible ways.”

However, a clear emphasis from the authors, who include psychologists, life scientists and international security experts, is the legislation that needs to be put into place to protect civilians and military personnel alike. In particular, the report calls for governmental clarification on a recent interpretation of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) law enforcement provision, which, as the paper details, “suggests that the use of incapacitating chemical agents for law enforcement purposes would be in compliance with the CWC as long as they were in types and quantities consistent with that permitted purpose”.

Rod Flowers was chairman of the working group that produced the paper and is Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London. He says: “We know that neuroscience research has the potential to deliver great social benefit — researchers come closer every day to finding effective treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and addiction. However, understanding of the brain and human behaviour coupled with developments in drug delivery also highlight ways of degrading human performance that could possibly be used in new weapons, especially incapacitating chemical agents.

“This is why it is so important that UK government is clear about its reasons for the changes made to its interpretation of the law enforcement exemption in the CWC. It’s absolutely crucial that countries adhering to the CWC address the definition of incapacitating chemical agents under the CWC at the next Review Conference in 2013.”

Flowers also argues that neuroscientists need to be aware of the potential dual usage of their research at an early stage of their training. “The neuroscientists conducting this research also need to be aware that knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes,” he argues.

Key will be communication between scientists and those in power. The paper says: “The UK government…should improve links with industry and academia to scope for significant future trends and threats posed by the applications of neuroscience.” The authors also call for the bodies such as the World Medical Association to study “the legal and ethical implications of biophysical degradation technologies (such as directed energy weapons) targeted at the central nervous system”.

Ethical issues aside, Flower questions whether the resources being used for neuroscience research for potential military applications might not be better deploted elsewhere: “The application of neuroscience research in the development of enhancement and degradation technologies for military and law enforcement use raises significant ethical considerations. Support for this type of research is potentially diverting funding and resources away from other important social applications such as the treatment of neurological impairment, disease and psychiatric illness. This is why it should be subject to ethical review and as transparent as possible.”


One response to “Report on military applications of neuroscience examines technologies and ethics”

  1. Starsha Frierson

    I found this article to be very interesting. I had no clue that you could do so much with the brain. However it does not sound too ethical in my opinion. There just some lines you should cross, especially when it comes to dealing with our troops.

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