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Professional News
When Does Brain Research Cross Ethical Boundaries?
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 3 page 12-12

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 well.

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, D.C.

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 action.

"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 new."

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 brain."

"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 system."

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 government agencies.

"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 security.

Moreno's article "Juicing the Brain" is posted at<http://sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=31373133-E7F2-99DF-3B50B89EA1ADBBFB>.

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