Sept. 11 anniversary: Can brain research keep us safe?

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Sept. 8 2011 7:11 AM

Can Brain Research Keep Us Safe?

Post-9/11 "neurosecurity" research is very cool, but it holds more promise than results.

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There's no doubt that we will be seeing a lot more applied brain research in the national security context. In that process, it is easy to be dazzled by the science fiction-like scenarios of brain-machine interfaces and implanted brain chips. But neuroscientists themselves vigorously disagree about how far the science can go, and the truth is that the prospects for taking many of these ideas outside the laboratory are so far inconclusive at best.

For example, patients with implanted electrodes who have lost the use of their limbs can now control computer cursors, on-off switches, and robotic arms. But the experiments pose risks as well as potential benefits like more alert warfighters or thoroughly networked human-machine systems.  The technology is clumsy, and the effects are of uncertain duration. Soldiers won't be running remote robots with their brains alone anytime soon, nor is it clear that that would be superior to the way drones are run now. There is a mixture of high hopes and hype for neuroscience-based lie detectors, but no responsible neuroscientist thinks these systems are anywhere close to legal admissibility, nor is it clear that people can't be trained to evade detection or even that we can always agree on what counts as a lie. For all the talk about cognitive enhancement through new pharmaceuticals, there's no evidence that performance on, say, an IQ test can be improved by drugs, though some drugs like Provigil may keep you awake and alert longer than amphetamines or caffeine. The trouble is, they can keep your competitor or adversary awake longer, too.

So what's the rationale for national security agencies spending our tax dollars on neuroscience? Although the short-term, real-world possibilities have been overhyped, hundreds of millions of dollars is barely a drop in the bucket of U.S. defense R&D. Neuroimaging devices like functional magnetic resonance imaging have opened up remarkable opportunities to learn about the brain, and they are only the beginning. Other fields, like genomics, are converging with neuroscience to provide new opportunities for cross-fertilization. In the age of do-it-yourself biology there are growing and justified worries about asymmetric warfare, with small groups or even well-educated individuals able to obtain off-the-shelf assets for malign purposes, perhaps someday including neurobiological materials.

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Despite these scare scenarios, we need to keep our perspective. Senior national-security experts I have spoken with over the years, both American and European, agree that the U.S. military has a history of overestimating the extent to which boots on the ground can be traded for technology. We have barely confronted the question of how much technology individual warfighters can be asked to adopt, or the long-term effect of devices or other interventions that target the brain. Experience with technologies that emerged with past conflicts should teach us that it is hazardous to guess the ultimate consequences of innovation. Consider the most important technology to emerge from the Cold War: the Internet. A relatively simple idea called packet switching has truly changed the world in ways that the founders of the "Arpanet" could not have anticipated. Neither could we.

To be sure, the effects of our emerging knowledge about the brain will be profound. In my forthcoming book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America I argue that America's battle over the ethics of issues like stem cells and cloning might be distracting us from the implications of the new neuroscience. Even if we guess wrong about what kinds of questions will arise in the new era of neurosecurity, we can be assured that new conflict technologies will, as they always have, change society as much or more than they change the ways wars are fought.

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