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The military and the ethics of war have always been a contentious issue. This becomes more complex when one refers to brain or psychological science applied to the military, e.g., psychologists assisting in the dubious science of interrogation or torture as Abu Ghraib has demonstrated, and as Guantanamo Bay might also have revealed.
Into this arena steps Moreno, a senior staff member for several presidential advisory commission and Pentagon committees. He is an ethics professor at Pennsylvania and the editor in chief of the Center for American Progress's online magazine.
His interest was certainly peaked during his parents lifetime by experiments with LSD and other drugs, and thus he reckoned that this early interest from the military to fledgling brain science in the 50's and 60's must surely have only increased today, and more so, would expand in scope in the future.
Moreno confirmed this, but more often than not, for instance in the wisdom of putting botulism toxins to work in poisoning a milk supply, the ethics of scientists doing such work while supported by State funds or Federal funds was not receiving equal airtime in the journals.
It was not in the work, but in the intentions of the people funding the work, that the questions needed to be asked.
Neuroscience in this book has a wider arc than one might suspect. Hormones, sensory devices and other peripheral topics may finally impinge on the neural mechanisms, so he casts his discussion net wider than the title suggests, including of course the interest in the behavioral sciences.
The first chapter looks at the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) which has moved its focus from the creation of superhuman soldiers down to maintaining peak performance, so not looking to create Frankensteinian monster cyborgs. An impressive agency, the computer mouse and the internet are some of its more well-known products, and as Moreno lists them, most of their current work concerns some or other brain-related output. However, some aspects of their research, e.g., into optogenetics, where neurons can be programmed to respond to a light-based signal, direct control of areas of the brain where optic fibers are implanted could lead to mechanized control via stimulation or inhibition of various brain centers, not far from Frankenstein meets RoboCop.
Pure scientific research has therefore become a staple part of the military establishment. As Moreno points out though, science and secrecy are certainly antithetical concepts, since science advances by widespread dissemination. Not only that, but the issue of informed consent would come to be critical if ethical review committees were not reviewing the protocols and directing how such research might be conducted, eg not injecting plutonium into humans without their consent. As much as this might be part of history, for instance WWII, the advent of anti-terrorist concerns since 2001 would have revived the industry and provided funding all over again, for instance to counter anthrax and other easily delivered threats.
As much as research has produced mechanical-electrical aids for amputees for example, so has it raised the potential for wearable robotics, and other enhancements for increasing human capacity. As with unmanned drones, the idea arises of remote controlled robots guided by humans far away, presumably safe in their remote cockpits. A Duke University experiment is described where a monkey learns to do just that kind of thing, using a robotic arm, but with its own arms tied down, driving the mechanical arm movement naturalistically using a hook up to its own motor cortex simply by operant conditioning. Combining these elements would mean a 'transformer' type of soldier with a massively strong exoskeleton could carry 200lb loads and sprint 20miles with them.
Another aspect of 'mind games' is the use of brainwashing and coercion techniques and the roles of the psychologists or other health professionals that took on the task of being mean to people rather than trying to cure them or support them in times of need. In this way, science is objective, ethics is seen as subjective. The brain here is the physical basis of subjectivity, which taken all together, we call the human mind. He continues with a lengthy discussion of mind and brain issues, and how the military could work with these concepts, or connect to them in some ways.
So now to actually building a better basic military tool: the soldier. Finding ways to deal with sleep and fatigue issues is one way. This is not just by the tried and tested and dangerous use of amphetamines, for instance in the air forces, but modafinil for instance, a non-amphetamine of uncertain action which manages to divert fatigue, or Ampakine, which seems to reverse the electrical functional deficits associated with sleep deprivation.
Building smarter soldiers, or enhancing nutrition or other features of peak performance are also on offer. Lowering the neuroregulator GABA levels can enhance brain plasticity, but with uncertain outcomes for instance. Extra copies of the NMDA receptor could enhance learning capacity likewise, as would teaching the brain to automatically forget things which could be vital, after capture by the enemy. The use of directed electrical impulse has also been shown to improve cognitive abilities. The stathmin gene is associated with fear, so we could deal with that perhaps, and its influence on the amygdala. Just changing the bacteria of the stomach contents could enhance fearlessness. So too, the use of propranolol, a beta-blocker related to environmental anxiety, has shown usefulness in arousal in PTSD. Obviously the ethics of all such enhancements is the equivalent of a military ethics minefield.
There are however a whole host of so-called non-lethal weapons, such as sedatives or calming agents, but these may go wrong, as the Russians found when they pumped fentanyl into a theatre to put terrorists to sleep, killing 128 others in the process by accident, mostly children.
He finally engages in a discussion of the ethics of neurosecurity. This would of necessity mean focusing on the unwanted or unexpected issues that would arise with any of the above elements. As precedents from which he can draw on, the use of the atomic weaponry in the past, the practice of biodefense, all would inform on the ethics of neurological offensive and defensive approaches to creating weaponry and strategies to exploit neuroscience for military deployment.
This closes the book for him and for us, a fairly unique work that reads easily, fascinates in some measure, and begins to address what kind of a neurological based war would we be able to live with.
© 2012 Roy Sugarman
Roy Sugarman, PhD, Senior Clinical Lecturer, University of New South Wales, Medical School