Soldiers could have their minds plugged directly into weapons systems, undergo brain scans during recruitment and take courses of neural stimulation to boost their learning, if the armed forces embrace the latest developments in neuroscience to hone the performance of their troops.
These scenarios are described in a report into the military and law enforcement uses of neuroscience, published on Tuesday, which also highlights a raft of legal and ethical concerns that innovations in the field might bring.
The report by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, says that while the rapid advance of neuroscience is expected to benefit society and improve treatments for brain disease and mental illness, it also has substantial security applications that should be carefully analyzed.
The report’s authors also anticipate new designer drugs that boost performance, make captives more talkative and make enemy troops fall asleep.
“Neuroscience will have more of an impact in the future,” said Rod Flower, chair of the report’s working group. “People can see a lot of possibilities, but so far very few have made their way through to actual use. All leaps forward start out this way. You have a groundswell of ideas and suddenly you get a step change.”
The authors said that while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.
The report calls for a fresh effort to educate neuroscientists about such uses of the work early in their careers.
Some techniques used widely in neuroscience are on the brink of being adopted by the military to improve the training of soldiers, pilots and other personnel. A growing body of research suggests that passing weak electrical signals through the skull, using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), can improve people’s performance in some tasks.
One study cited by the report described how US neuroscientists employed tDCS to improve people’s ability to spot roadside bombs, snipers and other hidden threats in a virtual reality training program used by US troops bound for the Middle East.
“Those who had tDCS learned to spot the targets much quicker,” said Vince Clark, a cognitive neuroscientist and lead author on the study at the University of New Mexico. “Their accuracy increased twice as fast as those who had minimal brain stimulation. I was shocked that the effect was so large.”
Clark, whose wider research on tDCS could lead to radical therapies for those with dementia, psychiatric disorders and learning difficulties, admits to a tension in knowing that neuroscience will be used by the military.
“As a scientist I dislike that someone might be hurt by my work. I want to reduce suffering, to make the world a better place, but there are people in the world with different intentions and I don’t know how to deal with that,” Clark said. “If I stop my work, the people who might be helped won’t be helped. Almost any technology has a defense application.”
Research with tDCS is in its infancy, but work so far suggests it might help people by boosting their attention and memory.
According to the Royal Society report, when used with brain imaging systems, tDCS “may prove to be the much sought-after tool to enhance learning in a military context.”