National security research is not just about building better missiles or
planes. Federally sponsored neuroscientists are studying ways to exploit
brains as well as bombs, delving into brain functions relating to sleep,
learning, and decision making.
However, "neurosecurity" research, as one observer calls it,
skates not only along the edge of knowledge but at the border of bioethics as
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) engages in high-risk,
high-payoff research with potential military applications, and DARPA does not
take an incremental approach.
"We are obsessed with understanding the underlying biology,
physiology, and neuroscience of big problems," wrote Amy Kruse, Ph.D.,
program manager in the Defense Sciences Office, on the agency's Web site.
For instance, DARPA scientists are looking at how neurotransmitters affect
stress responses that degrade short-term cognitive abilities or harm long-term
physical or psychological health. Others are studying chemical compounds that
might improve memory, attention, alertness, reaction time, and problem solving
in sleep-deprived soldiers or pilots. A class of drugs called ampakines,
developed to treat dementia and schizophrenia, improved performance of
sleep-deprived rhesus monkeys, for example, and may do the same in humans.
Results of experiments with knock-out mice bred to eliminate a "fear
gene" expressed in the amygdala have already been published. Noninvasive
electrical or magnetic stimulation of the brain appears to increase the firing
rate of neurons. DARPA contractors are studying whether these technologies can
help soldiers think better in the confusion of battle.
Still others are researching how the brain processes images, an
understanding that could help intelligence analysts looking for patterns on
computer screens or troops on the battlefield identify possible threats.
The agency recently sought "innovative proposals to develop
quantitative and integrative neuroscience-based approaches for measuring,
tracking, and accelerating skill acquisition and learning throughout the
military...based on noninvasive measures of brain activity."
However, as neuroscience plays an increased role in national-security
research, some are starting to assess the implications of a science that seeks
to overcome the ordinary human limits, two bioethicists told a recent press
conference sponsored by the Center for American Progress in Washington,
There have always been "dual-use" applications of neuroscience
research, said Jonathan Moreno, Ph.D., a professor of medical ethics and the
history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. For
example, dual-use technology such as noninvasive neuroimaging may someday help
stroke victims walk or amputees control prosthetic devices but may also be
used for training troops or following—or even guiding—them into
"The U.S. did not disarm after World War II, but began a national
security state that included work by established social scientists," he
said. "Maybe one-third of all university research was supported by
defense funds—so national security interest in the brain is not
Unlike chemistry and physics, however, neuroscience encompasses moral and
ethical issues such as free will, privacy, psychological manipulation, and
personal identity, said Moreno. "This is not just pushing
electrons," he said. "This is messing around with the
"Is something fundamentally new happening?" asked Paul Root
Wolpe, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and a senior fellow at the Center for
Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "Until now, anything we get
from a person comes from the peripheral nervous system, whether that's a
facial expression or galvanic skin response. Now we are able to get
information from the central nervous system, bypassing the peripheral nervous
To Moreno and Wolpe, that means the beyond-the-blue-sky thinking of
creating the bionic soldier or helping the wounded lead productive lives lies
the question of enhancing the abilities of otherwise healthy civilians.
Moreno thinks the entire subject remains too little known. He wants to see
the creation of a "National Science Advisory Board for
Neurosecurity" that would bring together people in neuroscience
subdisciplines and other interested parties to discuss policies and advise
"Should the skull be a privacy domain?" asked Wolpe."
Imagine a world where the state can intrude in people's brains and
minds. This may not be a line we are willing to cross."
Beyond that, said Moreno, doctors, scientists, and the public should start
an open national conversation about the place of brain research in national