Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Military and Dual Use Neuroscience

If there’s one thing I learned from the most recent installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s this:  if you’re doing interesting research, it probably has a military application.

In the interest of spoiler avoidance, let's just call this Wayne Enterprises invention "dual-use." (

Dual Use Technology
The formal name for it is “dual-use technology,” and it’s difficult to find an area of research in which it’s not a relevant concern. Innovations in renewable energy may avert catastrophic global warming, but they also promise to significantly lower military fuel costs and improve the mobility of forces newly unconstrained by the logistics of fossil fuel transportation. Research into nuclear fusion foreshadows essentially inexhaustible carbon-free energy at the same time as it provides a technological foundation for fusion-triggered nuclear weapons that some believe may lower the threshold for nuclear weapons use. Even ostensibly benign anti-obesity campaigns have military implications, as suggested by a recent CBS News article ominously titled “Too Fat To Serve: Military Wages War on Obesity.”

Physics and engineering tend to be the disciplines most readily associated with high-profile military innovations, but it’s biology – and neuroscience in particular – that has increasingly captured the interest of the military research establishment. In 2006’s Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan Moreno estimates that “most of [DARPA’s][1] desired research proposals directly or indirectly involve the brain” and, in a journal article published this year, finds that the fiscal year 2011 budget contains over $350 million in military neuroscience research. A 2009 Army report entitled “Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications” similarly emphasizes the importance of neuroscientific research, declaring that “emerging neuroscience opportunities have great potential to improve soldier performance and enable the development of technologies to increase the effectiveness of soldiers on the battlefield."

Jonathan Moreno’s Mind Wars, to my knowledge the most comprehensive work on the military applications of neuroscience.  (

The military applications of neuroscience are vast, but can be divided[2] into three categories: performance enhancement and degradation, surveillance and threat assessment, and neural interface.

Performance Enhancement and Degradation
Performance and cognitive enhancement technologies are not new to the military, though they’ve certainly taken on new forms in recent years. The use of stimulants - methamphetamine in Germany and Japan, and amphetamine among the British and Americans – was widespread throughout militaries during World War 2, and the 2009 Army report includes a section on good ‘ol caffeine as a means to “to improve cognitive functioning during sustained military operations.” Recent military research has investigated new drugs, most notably ampakines[3], that attempt to combat the negative effects of sleep deprivation without incurring the abuse potential and side effects often attributed to traditional stimulants. A 2012 report on neuroscience and conflict published by the UK Royal Society cites a number of additional substances – notably, the Parkinson’s drug and dopamine precursor L-DOPA for learning enhancement, the social-behavior-modulating hormone oxytocin for unit cohesion, and anxiety-dulling beta-blockers for decision-making under stressful conditions – with apparent potential for military use. Which substances will find an ultimate military application remains, at this point, unclear. For all the well-publicized success of underground chemists in producing euphoric knockoffs of popular recreational drugs[4], however, it seems inevitable that the military’s best pharmaceutical minds will eventually develop a set of chemicals appropriate to the wide variety of tasks faced by military personnel.

This woman’s oxytocin foot tattoo inspires a certain degree of love in me, though I’m told by more studied colleagues that “looking at molecular diagrams” doesn’t constitute an effective route of drug administration (

Military interest in performance enhancement extends well beyond chemicals. “Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications” recommends medium-term field deployment of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a form of direct electrical brain stimulation that has been associated with memory enhancement. The 2009 DARPA Strategic Plan references a DARPA program, intended for intelligence analysts[5], that aims to develop a neuroimaging system capable of detecting visual information below the level of conscious apprehension. The same strategic plan cites applications for neuroimaging in prescreening potential recruits and in expertise development for high-skill activities such as marksmanship and language acquisition.

In addition to the performance enhancement of its own personnel, the military stands to benefit from the performance degradation of the enemy. Techniques for achieving this goal, which might be categorized broadly as “chemical incapacitation,” have applications in crowd control, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and direct warfighting[6]. Incapacitating substances include opiates, notably utilized by Russia during the Moscow Theater hostage crisis for purposes of mass sedation, as well as other agents with established or theoretical sedating properties such as benzodiazepines, alpha-2 adrenoreceptor agonists, and orexin antagonists[7]. The U.S. military has also conducted research into the somewhat more science-fiction suggestive (and, depending on your political preferences, substantially more sinister sounding[8]) “directed energy weapons,” concentrated beams of small particles or electromagnetic radiation with the ability to cause cognitive impairment as well as physical incapacitation.

Surveillance and Threat Assessment
An EEG device marketed as the Veritas TruthWave helmet has received a fair bit of media coverage over the past several months for its supposed “mind-reading” properties. Attached to the head of a suspicious individual, TruthWave uses EEG to determine if a subject recognizes a given suspicious visual stimulus[9]. If the suspect responds with a pattern of brain activity known as a “P300 signal,” recognition – and therefore, it is thought, guilt – can be inferred. The CEO of Veritas Scientific, Eric Elbot, has been about as ominous as any person could realistically be about a product they hope to sell, telling the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that “The last realm of privacy is your mind… This will invade that.” Veritas’ research is funded by the U.S. military, and Elbot claims that a similar Veritas product has already been deployed in a border control context.

Veritas Scientific, the company behind theTruthWave helmet (

Along similar lines, a company called No Lie MRI has marketed fMRI truth detection technology to the Department of Defense. If you’re a loyal reader of the Neuroethics Blog, this likely won’t strike you as too surprising: the accuracy and usability of fMRI for lie detection have been discussed extensively here in the past. While fMRI has demonstrated impressive lie-detection capabilities in some studies, Neuroethics blogger David Nicholson points out that the current generation of fMRI machines also “take up an entire room and… sound like a dishwasher powered by the souls of unborn babies,” a fact which likely limits their usability in a field context. TruthWave, which neither takes up an entire room nor (to my knowledge) sounds anything like unborn children, may go some way towards ameliorating these limitations.

Neural Interface
Of all the neuroscience technologies currently under investigation by the military, it is neural interface that may produce the most far-ranging implications. Civilian researchers have made remarkable strides in direct neurological control of limbs and other objects, including the successful neural control of prosthetic robotic arms in both primates and humans. Neural interface technology has clear short-term applications in producing high-quality prosthetics for injured servicemembers, to the point where the website for DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program suggests that “servicemembers with arm loss may one day have the option of choosing to return to duty.”

The guy on the left looks amused out of his mind. (

In the medium-to-long term, it is conceivable that neural interface systems may revolutionize warfare in its entirety. The UK Royal Society report suggests a number of applications that appear at first glance to border on science fiction: imagine, for instance, remote-operated and brain-controlled vehicles for operations in enemy territory, neutrally-interfaced weapons systems that use unconscious brain data to enhance reaction times, or magnetic implants in the fingers that, when connected to the brain, allow the user to “feel” heat at a distance. In a fascinating Penn State interview, Jonathan Moreno is asked which military neuroscience technologies he feels are most “eye-opening or scary.” Dr. Moreno responds that neural interface technologies enabling what is “essentially a robot army… with the creativity and spontaneity of a human operator” may constitute the ultimate future of warfare (though perhaps, he cautions, not in his lifetime). Such warfare would be conducted not with “boots on the ground,” but by military personnel sequestered safely in a bunker dozens or hundreds of miles away.

Concluding Remarks
A generation ago, a young, patriotic science student might have aspired to work at the Lawrence Livermore or Los Alamos national laboratories, designing multi-megaton nuclear weapons to contain the Communist threat. Today, that same student – perusing a DARPA budget now easily accessible to her online – might reasonably conclude that it is neuroscience, not physics, in which the bulk of future military research opportunities lie. The implications of this paradigm shift for present-day neuroscientists are substantial, a fact which has increasingly been recognized by publications in the field (see herehere, and here). The potentially coercive use of performance enhancing substances among military service members, the consequences of EEG and fMRI for privacy, and the legal and ethical implications of next-generation chemical incapacitants are just some of topics that have been discussed extensively in this literature.

In my next post, I’ll look more comprehensively at the legal, ethical, and geopolitical implications of novel military neuroscience technologies, and discuss the role of neuroscientists in influencing possible future applications of their research.

Want to cite this post?
Gordon, R. (2012). The Military and Dual Use Neuroscience. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

[1] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the federal agency responsible for research into military-relevant technology.

[2] Imperfectly, and according to a more or less arbitrary system of personal categorization.

[3] Drugs whose action is mediated, as might be expected, through the AMPA subtype of glutamate receptors.

[4] e.g. “bath salts” and synthetic cannabis, among others.

[5] Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts (NIA).

[6] Although many of these applications are either clearly or ambiguously restricted by international law.

[7] See the UK Royal Society report ( for more information on these and similar incapacitating substances.

[8] Sinister sounding enough, in fact, that a Google search for “‘directed energy weapons’ conspiracy” yields 58,000 results, the first page of which contains diverse allegations involving mind control, the anti-Christ, 9/11 truth, and a Russian scheme to melt the polar ice caps.

[9] It’s not clear to me what constitutes a “suspicious visual stimulus,” but one article ( suggests “bomb specs or Osama bin Laden’s face” as possible examples.


Riley Zeller-Townson said...

A very informative post, Ross. I look forward to the sequel. I'm curious if you've come across any work on interrupting decision making while reading through Moreno et al (haven't read it yet)- the googles seem sparse on that subject

Ross Gordon said...

Hey Riley, thanks for the kind words. I haven't come across any technology explicitly framed as "interrupting decisionmaking," but it seems like various chemical incapacitants as well as directed energy weapons might fall into that category. DARPA's Narrative Networks proram( would also arguably apply as an attempt to use neuroscience to produce more persuasive propaganda.

I wouldn't be surprised if there's other programs I've missed, though - if you happen to come across anything I'd be interested to hear about it.