Neuroscience and National Security

Article excerpt

Neuroscience and National Security Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense. Jonathan D. Moreno. Dana Press. 210 pages; index; $23.95.

By James Jay Carafano

In a memorable 1961 speech, President Dwight D. Elsenhower warned Americans, "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." Eisenhower feared that excessive defense spending might lead to a cabal of collusion among defense industries, the Pentagon and big government who would make decisions that suited them best, undermining democracy. In short, they might use the pursuit of making Americans safer to do all kinds of ill. In Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense Jonathan Moreno warns that bad things can still happen in the name of national security-in more ways than one.

Moreno, a professor of bioethics at the University of Virginia and a defense consultant, sketches out contemporary efforts by the Pentagon to harness the science and technology related to the study of the brain in the fields ol neuroscience and neuropharmacology. Each chapter examines a potential military use, surveys ongoing research, evaluates the possibilities for new developments to affect both the defense and commercial sectors and considers the ethical impact of scientific innovations.

The topics addressed include using drugs to improve performance; creating machines to make soldiers smarter; understanding, predicting or even affecting and spying on how people think; and fielding nonlethal weapons. The capabilities discussed range from those already in use, such as antifatigue drugs taken by soldiers during Desert Storm, to science fiction, including experiments in parapsychology. Along the way, Moreno provides a tutorial on how the brain works; a summary of major controversies on theories concerning brain science; and an overview of commercial and nondefense scientific developments.

Moreno also includes a number of cautionary tales, particularly from linearly decades of the Cold War, when some nasty things were done in the name of national security. One of the difficult challenges of developing brain weapons is that at some point they have to be tested on brains. The traditional checks on human medical experimentation are the reviewing of proposals by a research ethics committee and obtaining the informed voluntary consent of participants. The military and the CIA sometimes skipped these steps in trials that ranged from testing brainwashing techniques to administering mind-altering drugs. In the most "fortunate" cases only individual rights were compromised; in the worst, health and lives were put at risk.

Mind Wars raises a number of serious ethical issues that may be faced by researchers and those who procure and deploy the capabilities scientists might develop. Modifying the brain, for example, by increasing the cognitive power of individuals to perform functions with computer-like precision, could undermine human dignity. Enhancing interrogation techniques with methods and medicines developed by neuroscience might become so effective that at some point they cross the line between legitimate action and torture, or lead to the unwarranted invasion of individual privacy. …