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Minding Mental Minefields

How to Stockpile the Neuropharmacological Arsenal

Solider firing rifle with a pill emerging from barrel SOURCE:, A new report from the National Research Council argues that the military should harness the power of neuroscience research to amplify the cognitive prowess of U.S. military personnel and make foreign soldiers, um, less smarter.

Ah, summer. The sun is shining, the Olympics are in full bloom, and so naturally one’s thoughts turn to…enhancement.

It’s been a marathon year for media coverage of athletic doping. Everybody, it seems, is upset about the ever-growing use of interventions to build muscle mass, quicken reaction times, and boost oxygen levels in the body. So much chatter! It’s like steroids on steroids.

Suddenly, the idea of winning the enemy’s hearts and minds becomes weirdly biochemical.

But let me draw your attention to a new event in the Handwringing Olympics, described in a remarkable report released this week by the National Research Council. It focuses in part on the flip side of the enhancement market, namely the military and intelligence communities’ interest in drugs and other methods for degrading performance—of enemy soldiers and terrorists, of course—and perhaps reading their intentions and even controlling their minds. Cognitive war is hell, sure, but at least it’s all in your head.

And you thought a shot of growth hormone in a baseball player’s butt was the biggest doping crisis facing the nation.

The 151-page NRC report was commissioned by the Defense Intelligence Agency. It was released with spy-like discretion on Wednesday (no press conference or major media blast), bearing a title too bland to be bland by accident: “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies.” (Inexplicably, the folks running the National Academies web site blew the report’s undercover cover, giving it the somewhat more telling online title “Cognitive Neuroscience Research and National Security”)

The report argues that the U.S. intelligence community must do a better job of keeping up with advances in the neurosciences. It’s not for nothing, it notes, that the brain is associated with intelligence. And echoing today’s Beijing blogosphere, it focuses a fair amount on enhancement, noting that there is a large and quickly growing market in drugs and other products that can boost physical strength and cognitive performance, which can benefit not just bicyclists and weightlifters but also U.S. forces in battle.

“In the future,” the report notes, “as soldiers prepare for conflict, [the Department of Defense] may call on the neurophysiology community to assist in maintaining the warfighting superiority of the United States. Commanders will ask how they can make their troops learn faster. How can they increase the speed with which their soldiers process large amounts of information quickly and accurately? How can the neurosciences help soldiers to make the correct decision in the difficult environment of wartime operations?”

Let’s ignore for now how this message contradicts what is perhaps the biggest antidoping argument tossed around by Olympic commentators, namely that a focus on enhancement “sends the wrong message” about drugs to our nation’s kids. Suffice it to say that the link between warfare and sports runs deep, and it is hard to imagine a society that honors enhancement on the battlefield but truly shuns it in the sports arena.

But even more interesting to me is the report’s discussion of the emerging market in brain-targeted, performance-degrading techniques. Some experiments, it turns out, suggest that magnetic beams can be used to induce seizures in people, a tempting addition to the military’s armamentarium. More conventionally, as scientists discover new chemicals that can blur thinking or undermine an enemy’s willpower, and as engineers design aerosolized delivery systems that can deliver these chemicals directly to the lungs (and from there, the brains) of large groups of people, the prospect of influencing the behavior of entire enemy regiments becomes real.

Indeed, in a crude way, that is exactly what Russian troops did in 2002 during the Moscow theater crisis, when they incapacitated rebels with a narcotic gas, fentanyl. But in a perfect war, the attack would be more subtle and perhaps even covert.

“Although conflict has many aspects, one that warfighters and policy makers often talk about is the motivation to fight, which undoubtedly has its origins in the brain and is reflected in peripheral neurophysiological processes,” the NRC report notes. “So one question would be, ‘How can we disrupt the enemy’s motivation to fight?’ Other questions raised by controlling the mind: ‘How can we make people trust us more?’ ‘What if we could help the brain to remove fear or pain?’ ‘Is there a way to make the enemy obey our commands?’…As cognitive neuroscience and related technologies become more pervasive, using technology for nefarious purposes becomes easier.”

Suddenly, the idea of winning the enemy’s hearts and minds becomes weirdly biochemical.

The report acknowledges that this approach to dealing with international squabbles is likely to stir some controversy.

“The brain is viewed as the organ most associated with personal identity,” it says, so “there is sure to be enormous societal interest in any prospective manipulation of neural processes.”

But cognitive warfare is potentially “more humane” than old-fashioned warfare—“pills instead of bullets,” in the report’s words—making this a likely growth industry, the NRC concludes. And if nothing else, it suggests, the United States should be a leader in the field so that if our enemies develop such weapons then American soldiers can have the best defenses available.

“The fear that this approach to fighting war might be developed will be justification for developing countermeasures to possible cognitive weapons. This escalation might lead to innovations that could cause this market area to expand rapidly. Tests would need to be developed to determine if a soldier had been harmed by a cognitive weapon. And there would be a need for a prophylactic of some sort.”

Moreover, the report says, with perhaps a subliminal nod to Abu Ghraib, “The concept of torture could also be altered by products in this market. It is possible that someday there could be a technique developed to extract information from a prisoner that does not have any lasting side effects.”

This is important not only because photos of hooded prisoners with wires attached to them are embarrassing, but also because, as noted in the report, one of the real drivers of torture today is scientists’ ongoing failure to develop reliable means of determining whether someone is lying or telling the truth. Of course, neuroscience can cut both ways, helping torturers extract information but also helping captives resist. In what the NRC report acknowledges may be a “far-fetched” but not necessarily crazy example, one can imagine soldiers getting Botox injections before a mission to prevent their facial expressions from giving away information if they get captured and interrogated.

Botox. The ultimate in cosmetic counterterrorist tactics.

The NRC is probably correct that these and similar avenues of scientific inquiry deserve better monitoring than is now underway in the secretive hallways of American intelligence agencies. No nation wants to get caught by surprise by a fancy new cognitive weapon that makes its soldiers suddenly willing to settle for a bronze medal in World War III.

But where and when will the discussions of human rights, privacy, and sovereignty come in? How do these nascent technologies fit into existing international conventions on warfare, on the treatment of prisoners, on civil and political rights and on medical experimentation and informed consent? Surely Congress deserves to know what methods are to be used when it makes the precipitous decision to go to war.

Perhaps Olympic doping is a big problem. Perhaps it is right that so much attention is being paid to athletes and their coaches who are tinkering with the limits of human capacity. Me, I am much more worried about the Big Boys with their brainy neurological toys. It’s bad when players break the rules, but games that have none are scarier.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.


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