The militarization of neuroscience


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
The militarization of neuroscience
By Hugh Gusterson | 10 April 2007

We've seen this story before: The Pentagon takes an interest in a rapidly 
changing area of scientific knowledge, and the world is forever changed. And not
for the better.

During World War II, the scientific field was atomic physics. Afraid that the 
Nazis were working on an atomic bomb, the U.S. government mounted its own crash 
project to get there first. The Manhattan Project was so secret that Congress 
did not know what it was funding and Vice President Harry S. Truman did not 
learn about it until FDR's death made him president. In this situation of 
extreme secrecy, there was almost no ethical or political debate about the Bomb 
before it was dropped on two cities by a bureaucratic apparatus on autopilot.

Despite J. Robert Oppenheimer's objections, a few Manhattan Project scientists 
organized a discussion on the implications of the "Gadget" for civilization 
shortly before the bomb was tested. Another handful issued the Franck Report, 
advising against dropping the bomb on cities without a prior demonstration and 
warning of the dangers of an atomic arms race. Neither initiative had any 
discernible effect. We ended up in a world where the United States had two 
incinerated cities on its conscience, and its pursuit of nuclear dominance 
created a world of nuclear overkill and mutually assured destruction.

This time we have a chance to do better. The science in question now is not 
physics, but neuroscience, and the question is whether we can control its 

According to Jonathan Moreno's fascinating and frightening new book, Mind Wars: 
Brain Research and National Defense (Dana Press 2006), the Defense Advanced 
Research Projects Agency has been funding research in the following areas:

€ Mind-machine interfaces ("neural prosthetics") that will enable pilots and 
soldiers to control high-tech weapons by thought alone.

€ "Living robots" whose movements could be controlled via brain implants. This 
technology has already been tested successfully on "roborats" and could lead to 
animals remotely directed for mine clearance, or even to remotely controlled 

€ "Cognitive feedback helmets" that allow remote monitoring of soldiers' mental 

€ MRI technologies ("brain fingerprinting") for use in interrogation or airport 
screening for terrorists. Quite apart from questions about their error rate, 
such technologies would raise the issue of whether involuntary brain scans 
violate the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

€ Pulse weapons or other neurodisruptors that play havoc with enemy soldiers' 
thought processes.

€ "Neuroweapons" that use biological agents to excite the release of 
neurotoxins. (The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention bans the stockpiling 
of such weapons for offensive purposes, but not "defensive" research into their 
mechanisms of action.)

€ New drugs that would enable soldiers to go without sleep for days, to excise 
traumatic memories, to suppress fear, or to repress psychological inhibitions 
against killing.

Moreno's book is important since there has been little discussion about the 
ethical implications of such research, and the science is at an early enough 
stage that it might yet be redirected in response to public discussion.

If left on autopilot, however, it's not hard to see where all of this will lead.
During the Cold War, misplaced fears of a missile gap and a mind control gap 
excited an overbuilding of nuclear weapons and unethical LSD experiments on 
involuntary human subjects. Similarly, we can anticipate future fears of a 
"neuroweapons" gap, and these fears will justify a headlong rush into research 
(quite likely to involve unethical human experiments) that will only stimulate 
our enemies to follow suit.

The military and scientific leaders chartering neuroweapons research will argue 
that the United States is a uniquely noble country that can be trusted with such
technologies, while other countries (except for a few allies) cannot. They will 
also argue that these technologies will save lives and that U.S. ingenuity will 
enable the United States to dominate other countries in a neuroweapons race. 
When it is too late to turn back the clock, they will profess amazement that 
other countries caught up so quickly and that an initiative intended to ensure 
American dominance instead led to a world where everyone is threatened by 
chemicalized soldiers and roboterrorists straight out of Blade Runner.

Meanwhile, individual scientists will tell themselves that, if they don't do the
research, someone else will. Research funding will be sufficiently dominated by 
military grant makers that it will cause some scientists to choose between 
accepting military funding or giving up their chosen field of research. And the 
very real dual-use potential of these new technologies (the same brain implant 
can create a robosoldier or rehabilitate a Parkinson's disease sufferer) will 
allow scientists to tell themselves that they are "really" working on health 
technologies to improve the human lot, and the funding just happens to come from
the Pentagon.

Does it have to be this way? In spite of obvious problems controlling a field of
research that is much less capital-intensive and susceptible to international 
verification regimes than nuclear weapons research, it is possible that a 
sustained international conversation between neuroscientists, ethicists, and 
security specialists could avert the dystopian future sketched out above.

Unfortunately, however, Moreno (p.163) quotes Michael Moodie, a former director 
of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, as saying, "The attitudes
of those working in the life sciences contrast sharply with the nuclear 
community. Physicists since the beginning of the nuclear age, including Albert 
Einstein, understood the dangers of atomic power, and the need to participate 
actively in managing these risks. The life sciences sectors lag in this regard. 
Many neglect thinking about the potential risks of their work."

Time to start talking!

© 2007 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Escaping the Matrix website:  
cyberjournal website:             
Community Democracy Framework:
Subscribe cyberjournal list:            •••@••.•••  (send 
blank message)
Posting archives:                      
Moderator:                                         •••@••.•••  (comments