Brain researchers marching off to war?

Life scientists need to reflect more on potential military applications of drugs that affect mental states, and they and diplomats need to revise international treaties to better regulate such substances, argues a prominent researcher into chemical and biological

In an opinion piece in Nature, Malcolm Dando, principal investigator for the Wellcome Trust project on Building a Sustainable Capacity in Dual-Use Research, uses the October 2002 hostage crisis in Moscow to highlight the perils of such pharmaceuticals. Russian military forces used derivatives of the opiate fentanyl to incapacitate Chechen rebels holding more than 750 hostages in a theater; the rebels were stunned and eventually killed, but 124 of the hostages also died from exposure to the gas.

Recent developments have only heightened the dangers, Dando argues. For decades,
government groups have been researching possible military applications of mind-altering substances, he writes, but now experts warn that “it would soon be possible to engineer agents to target specific human biological systems at the molecular level,” including emotions, memories, immune responses and fertility. For instance, researchers are developing substances that reduce aggressive behavior, and some firms are selling oxytocin—popularly dubbed the “trust hormone”—in the consumer market to facilitate bonding.

Dando argues that international agreements—specifically the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention—must be expanded to incorporate the newest developments in biology. But “most pressingly,” he writes, exceptions for domestic law enforcement must be reconsidered. “In my opinion, all use of novel non-lethal agents such as fentanyl for law enforcement should be prohibited, or at least heavily restricted,” or we must acknowledge that this is the beginning of a slippery slope towards a full militarization of biology.

The well-researched piece is a chilling reality check, although it feels a bit dire. Dando writes that “discussions with more than 2,000 practising life scientists in 13 countries over the past few years have taught me that few have considered such possible uses of their work.” But such developments are for the most part far off and highly speculative; the science of commercial oxytocin sprays, for example, is dubious at best. Even so, as we covered earlier this year, a survey of U.S. scientists found that many are preventively taking steps to reduce potential military implications of their work even in the absence of clear guidelines.

Dando also cites “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies,” a report commissioned by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and released late last year by the National Research Council that looked at how neuroscience could change defense operations and intelligence gathering over the coming decades. In discussing the potential for mind-reading systems for interrogations, “cognitive weapons” for confusing or taking control of enemy troops and mind-machine interfaces for remotely operating vehicles and weapon systems, the report outlines just how seriously military officials are taking new developments in neuroscience.

But report committee member Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the Dana Press book  “Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense,” told me after the report was issued that the findings aren’t just aimed at the military. In being released publicly, it may also serve as a spur for better proactive international regulation of neurotechnology, he says.

Dando’s hard proscriptions also feel a bit unrealistic and even counterproductive. A police officer friend of mine has said that he would love a consistent, safe method of incapacitating suspects in emergency situations, but in the absence of one often needs to fall back on the threat of firearms. For that and other reasons, such research is likely to continue no matter what, and not necessarily in inappropriate ways. Striking an uneasy balance between beneficial and harmful uses may be the best we can do, as our history with nuclear power and genetic engineering have taught us.

—Aalok Mehta

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