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Meeting at AAAS Explores the Ethics of Using Neuroscience for Military Advantage
Jonathan Moreno and Alice Young
Faced with a two-day standoff in a crowded Moscow theater, Russian special forces took an unusual approach to overcoming nearly 50 terrorists and freeing more than 800 hostages who had been threatened with death. The special forces pumped an aerosolized anesthesia into the theater's ventilation system and then—presumably pre-treated with an antidote to the anesthesia—they stormed the theater. The decision on the whole was deemed a success, as the terrorists were killed and most of the hostages survived.
The Moscow Siege of 2002 presents an example of a nervous system drug used in a national security situation, said panelists at a recent neuroethics meeting hosted by AAAS. Applications of neuroscience tools in warfare scenarios are becoming a greater part of military strategies, the panelists said during the 14 November "National Intelligence and Neuroscience" session at the first-ever meeting for the newly formed Neuroethics Society. More than 180 participants from 26 countries attended the meeting.
During his opening remarks, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner emphasized the timeliness of the neuroethics meeting. "When the world discovers what neuroscience has been discovering, it could make a lot of people uncomfortable. We need to get ahead of that issue now by engaging with the public," said Leshner, a neuroscientist, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. "We've never been in a place where the intersection between science and society has been so fragile. Advances in science are butting up against core human values and we need to do a better job of working through issues with the public."
In the national security session, three panelists spoke about their involvement with a report on cognitive neuroscience and its applications to national intelligence and security. The report was commissioned a year-and-a-half ago by the U.S. Intelligence Defense Agency and released in August by the National Academies. The report describes the current state of neurophysiological and cognitive neuroscience evidence relevant to the intelligence and security community. The committee also identified trends that could be useful in warfare.
"I believe this is the first time that the national intelligence community has asked civilian scientists for formal public input to these matters, so the timing is very interesting," said Jonathan Moreno, moderator for the national intelligence and neuroscience session held 14 November. Moreno is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the 16 experts on the report's committee. He said that the panelists' discussion of the report did not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the committee.
Panelist Alice Young, an experimental psychologist and pharmacologist, also served on the report's committee. During her talk at the Neuroethics Society meeting, Young highlighted trends in pharmacology that could shape warfighting, such as the development of new drugs, how drugs are delivered, what parts of the nervous system they act upon, drug interactions, and how drug effects could be altered by performance conditions.
Young emphasized that ever-growing knowledge of how the brain works may change drug development. Whereas many drugs are based on synaptic interactions and neurons as being the "critical drivers for cognitive and psychological life," Young said, neuroscientists may find that other components of the nervous system have a greater role than previously thought. For instance, glial cells—once cast off as passive, support cells that give structure to the brain—are increasingly recognized as playing active roles in brain function. Far more numerous than neurons, glia have been shown to respond to signals. Emerging evidence such as this exemplifies "areas that intelligence analysts need to be actively educated about," said Young, a professor at Texas Tech University.
She also highlighted how individuals can have different responses to the same drug and how that might be taken a step further to develop genetic manipulations that modify drug responses. Citing how genetic changes have been used to alter muscle mass, Young wondered "Could we have a similar technology that alters drug effects?"
In addition to altering physical abilities, drugs could also be used to tweak psychological functions. Oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone, could increase soldiers' social cognition and elicit trust from enemies, Young said.
This is not to say that the U.S. government encourages drug use in its soldiers. With the exception of caffeine gum, the U.S. Department of Defense is generally not supportive of enhancement in its soldiers, said panelist Nathan Schwade during the question and answer portion of the session. Schwade is a project manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory and served on the committee that produced the report published by the National Academies. He specified that his affiliations did not necessarily share the views he discussed at the Neuroethics Society meeting.
Using the Moscow theater siege as an example, Young and Schwade discussed how drugs targeting the nervous system could be used in adversarial situations. Young listed drugs that incapacitate sensory systems—like the ability to see or hear—and drugs that rapidly decrease blood pressure, a concern among pilots under pressurized conditions. She also mentioned how even Botox—made famous by people seeking to reduce age-related facial lines—could be used in warfare situations to defeat facial expression detection systems. Also, Young speculated that soldiers might be trained to operate under the influence of drugs so that they can detect their own performance deficits due to drugs delivered by the enemy and take action by calling for backup or taking a drug that reverses the deficits.
Training methods used with pharmaceuticals could enhance military performance. "There will be agents that are targeted to increase certain sorts of learning processes so that if they are combined with certain kinds of learning and teaching experiences, individuals could learn very fast to a much higher level," Young said during the Q&A session. Or, agents may be developed to allow soldiers to go to sleep quickly and then awake and be instantly ready to work.
Schwade, a neuropharmacologist working on national security and intelligence issues, discussed trends in cheap, quick asymmetric warfare used against soldiers. Cross-over technology topped his list of trends. Just as cell phones have been used in bombs, Schwade said, soldiers and military planners should be vigilant for drugs and drug delivery systems created for "positive purposes but [which] could be used for nefarious purposes."
What is "particularly frightening" about neuroscience research done by enemies for offensive purposes is that it can be done under the radar. "You can't look at it with satellite imagery," Schwade said. "You just need a hospital and a wet lab."
The human-machine interface—including cars, iPhones, computers and any other machines that people interact with—is another area of emerging neuroscience research that national security and intelligence analysts should be aware of, Schwade and his colleagues point out in the National Academies report. The gaming industry is at the forefront of research in human-machine interfaces, Schwade said, with devices worn on the head to detect head and eye movements. The movements are relayed to a computer and translated into moving cursors on a screen. Exoskeletal concepts, such as developing a machine that lift large amounts, is another example of an emerging human-machine interface of use in security situations.
Schwade concluded his talk with some neuroethical questions that arose in the course of writing the National Academies report on using neuroscience tools in warfare scenarios. "What if I could give you a drug that made you not afraid? Or made you believe me—how should I use it? What about if I gave you a drug that made you not want to fight me?" he asked. "The rate-limiting step is ethical boundaries and not technology," he added during the Q&A session, to which panelist Young agreed.
He discussed how a derivative of the painkiller fentanyl—a pharmacological substance that was likely part of the gas used by the Russians to end the Moscow theater siege—has not been authorized for non-medical uses in the United States. At least 120 hostages were killed during the rescue, and another 650-plus hostages were hospitalized presumably from gas inhalation. Use of non-lethal incapicitants, such as fentanyl derivatives, to attack adversaries mixed with civilians was considered by the United States, but "abandoned as an unacceptable loss of life," Schwade said. The ethics of this is "fascinating to me, because the Russians decided that if they could save 80% of the people then they would do it" whereas the United States decided against it, he said.
Journalist Jonas Siegel, who has reported on the National Academies report, emphasized the implications of neuroscience technologies at the neuroethics meeting. Neuroimaging, drugs that affect brain function, and brain-machine interfaces are the primary technologies of security interest, said Siegel, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Drawing on his experience with nuclear technologies, Siegel used the Manhattan Project as an example of how to minimize the spread of military-related scientific knowledge to enemies. During that project, the knowledge was controlled by sequestering and compartmentalizing scientists and not telling most of them that their end goal was a nuclear bomb.
"You didn't have to worry about adversaries getting information on how to build nuclear weapons if no one knew that they were building nuclear weapons," Siegel said.
Patent control was another way to control the spread of nuclear technology, he said, listing patents on how to separate uranium isotopes and how to develop triggers and explosives needed for nuclear weapons as examples. "You can't do anything about intent," but you can do something to control the dispersion of technology, Siegel said.
On the downside, he added, "we might look back and say that nuclear technologies were among the easiest to control." The difficulty in getting materials to make a nuclear bomb plus lack of implicit knowledge of bomb-making sets up a situation in which even though the atomic bomb blueprint is available, "you don't see H-bombs in every nation of the world," Siegel said.
More recently, biological and chemical weapons have gained attention, leading to the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 in which nations have agreed not to stockpile such weapons. But these agreements are not fail-safe, Siegel said. "One central fault we see emerging in both of these agreements is an inability to effectively deal with the evolution in life sciences research," he said. Another problem is the potential misuse of synthetic biology and genomics tools, which are increasingly available and affordable, and enable "garage scientists" to create biological weaponry.
Siegel encouraged greater efforts from bench scientists to understand how their research could be applied elsewhere before it reaches the open market where it becomes more difficult to control. Open discussions could help too. With ongoing discussions—such as at the Neuroethics Society meeting—"there's no potential for black markets to develop," he said. "It's a lot easier to know what's out there when you have confidence that everyone's being very open about the research they're doing."
The 13-14 November neuroethics meeting included sessions on the neuroethics of pediatric bipolar disorder, a debate on cognitive enhancement, use of neuroscience methods in forensics, the commercialization of neuroscience, and an evening discussion on deep brain stimulation which was hosted by the Dana Foundation. Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, served as a member of the program committee for the Neuroethics Society meeting.
"One theme to emerge from the Society meeting was the need for greater education about these issues for various publics, especially policy-makers," Frankel said.
Following the neuroethics meeting at AAAS, Frankel organized a related seminar as part of the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C. The "Judicial Seminar in Emerging Issues in Neuroscience" covered the neuroscience of deception, memory, drug and alcohol dependence, and violence. It was the last in a 2008 series of neuroscience and the court system seminars, convened by AAAS and funded by the Dana Foundation, and held around the United States. The seminars began in 2006. More than 100 state and federal judges have participated in the seminar series, Frankel said.
5 December 2008