Neuroscience and Technology Aid the Military, Face Ethical Issues

Advances in brain research coupled with computing technologies hold the promise of restoring the independence of those with varying levels of paralysis from spinal cord or other wartime injuries. | DARPAtv

The pairing of neuroscience and computer technology is leading to once unimaginable treatments for those with severe paralysis or brain injuries that impact speech, opening paths to restore mobility and lost communication, according to a congressional presentation on neurotechnology and the military.

Significant advances emerging from neuroscience and computer technology have long been a goal of the U.S. military in its quest to find better ways to use brain-related technology to boost national security, and more recently, address debilitative injuries resulting from improvised explosive devices and posttraumatic stress disorder, according to two experts on neuroscience and ethics.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that promotes brain research and related educational initiatives, and the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus hosted the 90-minute session on Dec. 1. The presentation was this year’s third and final of a lecture series focused on brain research.

Walking through the latest research and clinical trials seeking to restore the mobility, communications and muscle use of soldiers was Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist and engineer in neurotechnology at Massachusetts General Hospital and a director of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence, Rhode Island.

Hochberg and a group of multidisciplinary research teams representing multiple academic, industry and clinical institutions are working on an implantable brain device able to record neural signals, translate or decode them with the help of computational neuroscientists and upload the data to a computer interface system. Using the technology, quadriplegics need only to summon their thoughts to type an electronic note, surf the internet or drink a coffee, activities previously unfeasible without assistance.

“I began to believe that we are actually on the way toward developing a communications technology that might really be clinically useful for someone with severe speech and motor impairment such as someone with advanced ALS,” said Hochberg after he showed a video of research subjects, one with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive neurodegenerative disease, being able to type as many as 39 characters a minute on a screen simply by thinking about moving their hands.

Such technological advances are particularly important to a military setting since many who serve in the military face an increased incidence of ALS, Hochberg said.

Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and health policy and of the history and sociology of science and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed to the social and ethical implications such technologies introduce.

Jonathan Moreno, left, and Leigh Hochberg, take questions from a Capitol Hill audience about gains made by the military leveraging innovative approaches to neurotechnology. | Anne Q. Hoy

The nation’s defense agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year funding cognitive neuroscience research, Moreno noted, citing research projects to better understand and model “human behavior in social and cultural contexts” and explore systems for “direct neural interfacing to receive and react to operationally relevant environmental, physiological and neural information.”

The military’s use of enhancement technologies, intended to improve troop fitness or bolster troop performance, heighten ethical concerns, particularly because the technologies are not covered by the same legal and regulatory guidelines that govern the military’s use of investigational and experimental drugs on troops.

Take the Air Force’s 2004 approval of Modafinil, a drug first developed to treat narcolepsy, the chronic sleep disorder, for its pilots. The enhancement drug has been found to keep someone awake and alert for up to 80 hours. “There is always a dual use aspect to all these technologies,” Moreno said.  

The drug is now being used by long-haul truck drivers, shift workers and international travelers who have meetings across the globe with a quick turnaround. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working to establish its regulatory role over such drugs and devices that elevate performance.

The growing prevalence of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD has set off a search for effective treatments. About one third of soldiers returning from combat duty with PTSD find no improvement through talk or drug therapy.

Being studied are the use of beta-blockers, which can limit physiological and psychological effects of trauma and suppress the stress hormone norepinephrine that helps build memory. “Would the tradeoff of preventing a PTSD, a terrible disease, for a lifetime be worth having a cohort of war fighters who came back and did not feel guilt or regret or shame about that they had seen?” Moreno asked.

Brain stimulation or “make yourself smarter” technologies, while not new, have been shown to improve working memory and sharpen “physical movement, visual perception, memory and reaction time,” he said. These include Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, the former uses alternating magnetic fields to simulate specific brain areas while the latter aims electrical currents of power equal to a 9-volt battery to specific brain areas.

The developments have generated new ethical concepts such as “cognitive liberty” that asks whether a person should be the only one with access to their thoughts and whether brain alterations should be made reversible in addition to concerns related to technologies falling into the wrong hands.

“This is stuff that a small state or non-state actor might get access to,” Moreno said. “Not only putting funny stuff on your Facebook page, but also, perhaps, being able to figure out how, in some detail, it will affect your brain when they put that stuff on your Facebook page.”

[Associated image: DARPAtv]