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Neuroscience and the Weapons of Future

Andrei AKULOV | 12.04.2012 | 10:31
The weapons that the humanity have used until now have all been kinetic tools of waging war starting from spears and arrows up to high – precision munitions, electronic warfare and stealth technology. But in a quite foreseeable future a completely new physical principle of waging combat action will be applied. The systems fall under the category of non-lethal weapons, but their lethal potential may by far exceed any conventional capability we have ever seen. Dozens of years of brain research start to result in advanced discoveries to be put to practical use, advances that open the door to “neuroweapons”—virus-transported molecules to addle the brain. Nowadays neuroscience is rapidly advancing encompassing a wide range of use and technologies. In the not-too-distant future the battlefields will be shaped by advances in neuroscience focused for military purposes, the technologies called brain-machine interfaces could link human brains with computer programs. For instance, analysts with a brain chip could quickly sift through huge amounts of intelligence data and fighter pilots merged with computer search algorithms could rapidly lock onto enemy targets.Neuroscience and brain-related research is something the United States military invests in. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) lists several neuroscience-related projects on its website, including “Accelerated Learning,” “Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts” and “Cognitive Technology Threat”. The research is done under the leadership of Amy Kruse, the DARPA program manager for these projects. The Pentagon and US special services seem to be keen on using the achievements for their purposes.

The US Air Force also studies the ways to enhance airmen’s performance, while degrading the mental states of their enemies. In November 2009 the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing regularly came out with a call for proposals that examine “Advances in Bioscience for Airmen Performance.” Proposals will be accepted through September 2014. It’s a six-year, $49 million effort to deploy extreme neuroscience and biotechnology in the service of warfare. The announcement states the Air Force seeks “radically new military capabilities that improve warfighter performance and combat effectiveness.” The goal is the technologies that can read airmen’s minds and then manipulate them: “to anticipate, find, fix, track, identify, and characterize human intent and physiological status anywhere and at anytime”. It’s not limited by flyers only. It seeks the “capability for Special Operations Forces to rapidly identify human-borne threats.” Applied biotechnology is sought that could, for instance, develop special protein biomarkers that indicate an airman’s mission readiness, gene expression methods that could improve that readiness, modulate an airman’s emotional state — it can include mind-altering drugs or biochemical pathway techniques.

As one can see further the USA allies also make their contribution into the joint effort.


The November 2011 issue of the journal Synesis is the most well known publication devoted to the theme of “Neurotechnology in National Security.” It calls for the U.S. to be proactive in researching and developing neurotechnology for military purposes and protect national security including intelligence efforts. The experts James Giordano of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., and Rachel Wurzman of Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., discuss four types of technology valuable for national security: nano-neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, neuro-imaging and cyber-neurosystems. They provide examples, such as nanomachines that modify the brain’s functioning to enhance the performance of troops, mind-reading by means of neuro-imaging and devices that would increase a person’s brainpower by linking it to a computer. Other contributors also describe brain-machine interfaces, which could wire a human into a computer network. They could be used to control advanced weapons systems directly from the mind, or for training and supplementing the abilities of intelligence analysts. It’s emphasized that the DARPA is already developing technology that would allow intelligence personnel to sift through images at unprecedented speeds. The neuropharmacological drugs could be used in combat to paralyze or make enemy troops incapable for agile operational activities or even kill them. There are other sorts of psychopharmacological manipulation that could be used to boost servicemen performance, allowing them to remain vigilant without sleep, enhance their perceptual powers and erase memories of their actions on the battlefield. It means no sense of remorse, a terrible thing to my mind as someone with military background. It inevitably leads to war crimes. There is a description of drugs, microbial agents and toxins derived from nature that could harm enemy brains in a more traditional way. The list includes a neurotoxin from a shellfish that is water soluble, able to be aerosolized and cause death within minutes; a bacterium that can induce hallucinations, itchiness and strange tastes; and an amoebic microbe that crawls up the olfactory nerve to invade the brain, where it kills brain tissue.

In February 2012 the UK Royal Society published the Neuroscience, Conflict and Security report. The wide-ranging document covers a lot of ground, including the ethical issues surrounding the use of neuroscience in defense. It seems to focus less on ways to impact the enemy directly and more on the enhancement of soldiers’ fighting abilities. It describes the neurological drugs that make enemy captives more talkative or perhaps cause enemy troops fall asleep or become disoriented. The report’s authors note that the most potentially consequential developments will be found in the area of neural interfacing and the efforts to bring the human nervous system and computing machines under a single informational architecture. One of the suggestions presupposes that a human brain may be harnessed within fire control systems to perform cognitive tasks before these even become conscious to them. What strikes an eye is the fact that the research is done on the basis of tests involving the disabled. It means the people mutilated in the Afghan and Iraq wars have become a testing ground for new technologies Aside from related ethical and legal issues, one cannot but observe that under such a scheme an individual has no control over his fate. The report offers some amendments to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention regimes but somehow says nothing about the War and International Human Law.


There are the first practical shoots of the neuro research in different parts of the world. For instance. in March 1, 2011 Japanese researchers came up with something in quite a concrete form. They created a hand-held gun that can jam the words of speakers who are more than 30 meters away. The gun has two purposes: at its most basic, it could be used in libraries and other quiet spaces to stop people from speaking. Its second application is actually unrestricted speech control. Just imagine someone saying something a government doesn’t like and the gun is used. That’s the end of free speech everywhere. And this invention appears to be a drop in the sea of new coming technology of the kind.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have demonstrated the capability to predict test subjects’ decisions for simple choices based on neuroimaging-based assessment of brain activity arising prior to the subjects’ conscious awareness of their decision.

A cursory look at the recent history shows there is a great probability the neuro and other non-lethal weapons have already gone through their first combat tests.

On August 7, 2006, witnesses stated that directed-energy weapons and other exotic weapons were used repeatedly in the Israeli-Lebanon war. One of the researchers of this event, Italian Professor Paola Maduca, requested that a United Nations international tribunal be set up to look into the charges. He cited “countless reports from hospitals, witnesses, armament experts, and journalists that strongly suggest that new weapons were used,” and pointed to the presence of “new and strange symptoms amongst the wounded and the dead.”

According to numerous reports, US servicemen in Iraq were sometimes directed to install hidden transmitters that saturate areas with “pacifying” or disorienting electromagnetic frequencies. The idea was to microwave Iraq’s more restive cities and keep those who opposed the US presence so agitated that they couldn’t coalesce into a full force of resistance fighters. The silent frequencies were regularly sweeping Fallujah and other trouble spots. The very same frequencies were used by the US Navy to drive whales nuts and make them go astray onto beaches. Less sophisticated weapons were mounted on Humvees for targeted crowd control by beaming microwaves that flash-burn exposed flesh.


Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne stated in 2007 that “nonlethal weapons should be tested on U.S. civilians before being used on the battlefield,” referring to the use of EM weapons in crowd-control situations. “The object is basically public relations,” said Wynne. “Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations.”

The US National Security Presidential Directive 51 (NSPD-51) saw light in 2007 to ensure the “continuity of government” in the event of “catastrophic emergency.” If the president determines that such an emergency has occurred, he may cancel elections, suspend the Constitution, and declare martial law, all without Congressional consent. President Obama has not abolished it. At the time of economic woes in September 2008 the Army Times reported that the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team was being redeployed from Iraq to the “homeland.” The formation was the first one to be equipped with crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them. An unclassified energy weapon called the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) was deployed in Pittsburgh during the time of the G20 summit on September 24-25th, 2009. Security forces could turn its piercing sound on demonstrators. It was the first time the sound cannon had been used publicly. About $1 billion was allocated for security purposes at the 2010 summit of the G20 in Toronto, but it is not known what kind of non-lethal weapons were deployed.


The idea to control the world with neuroscience is tempting. Besides there is no international regime for monitoring human experiments. The research and its results are increasingly beyond the control of governments and the public. Where will the technological progress combined with great secrecy and absence of civil control lead to? At Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay the USA resorted to repugnant methods such as sensory deprivation, near drowning and “self-inflicted pain” techniques to achieve control over defenseless prisoners. In March 2012 the Pentagon started an emergency review of the use of an anti-malaria drug known to have severe psychiatric side effects by the military – nine days after the Afghan massacre in which a U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly shot dead 17 civilians including nine children. He probably used the notorious drug Mefloquine, also known as Lariam, that has been implicated in a number of suicides and homicides in the military spanning back more than ten years, with side effects including paranoia, hallucinations and psychotic behavior. Some scientists have already committed to resisting the application of their research to what they consider illegal or immoral military purposes. Curtis Bell, of the Oregon Health & Science University is opposed to the use of neurotechnology research for military purposes. “It’s not enough just to study the issue of ethics,” he said. In 2010, Bell wrote a pledge for neuroscientists refusing to “participate in … violations of basic human rights or international law.” The pledge, which he says has been signed by about 200 neuroscientists, opposes the application of neuroscience to torture or aggressive war. Bell’s pledge also comes out against “forms of coercive interrogation and manipulation that violate human rights and personhood,” giving such examples as drugs that induce pain, anxiety, or unwarranted trust.

Not even Albert Einstein could foresee the future. “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” he said. And what about the “domestic use” of nonlethal weapons that is inevitable once the “political control technology” is at hand? Have the US and their allies military and researchers taken into consideration how the fact of such program being implemented will be perceived in other countries? Will other world actors stay idle? Will the militarization of neuroscience really make the world safer, or just trigger a new arms race? The historic experience says it jolly well may. What about ethics? Is it possible to do anything with highly probable misappropriation or frank misuse? Isn’t it the time to start domestic and international efforts to set new “neurocentric “norms? Even so it still means walking a treacherous ground and running high risks due to well known limits of any legal system to respond to emerging technology in a due manner. It is easy to let the genie out of the bottle, but then one can see it’s too late to lock the stable door after the horse is stolen. The genie will not return. All these questions need real thorough scrutiny for there are two sides to every coin.


Written by rudy2

November 12, 2012 at 06:35

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