LONDON, (Reuters) – Directed energy weapons that use wave beams to cause pain, and electrical brain stimulation that boosts a soldier’s combat ability – it may sound like science fiction warfare, but experts say advances in neuroscience mean it’s on the horizon.
Rapid progress in the ability to map brain activity and manipulate its responses with stimulants could change the face of warfare, a panel of experts said on Tuesday.
The experts, looking at the scope for neuroscience in future military conflict, said researchers on the cutting edge of medical science should remember that their work could have other, more harmful uses.
“We know neuroscience research has the potential to deliver great social benefit – researchers come closer every day to finding effective treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and addiction,” said Rod Flower, a professor of biochemical pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London, who led the panel.
“However, understanding of the brain and human behaviour, coupled with developments in drug delivery, also highlight ways of degrading human performance that could possibly be used in new weapons.”
The report, published on Tuesday by the UK’s national academy of science, the Royal Society, was written by experts in neuroscience, international security, psychology and ethics.
It divided the issue of neuroscience in conflict and security into two main areas – the potential to enhance performance of military forces, and the potential to degrade or diminish the enemy’s performance.
Looking at performance enhancement, the report pointed to advances in neural interface technologies which could allow machines such as drone aircraft to be controlled directly with the human brain, and advances in neuroimaging which could help military chiefs screen for recruits with particular attributes.
“There is also a great deal of research taking place around drugs that improve the alertness, attention and memory of military personnel while in the field,” the report said.
The experts said it was in the interests of military commanders to screen for abilities relevant to a given task.
While one person may excel in detecting targets in a cluttered environment, they said, another might excel in decision making skills under stress, and advances in neuroimaging and brain stimulation techniques could help pinpoint these differences during screening and recruitment.
Irene Tracey, an expert on brain imaging from Oxford University and one of the report’s authors, said most of the applications of neural interface technology, such as brain prostheses or implants, have so far been only at the trial stage and mostly in medicine – particularly involving the rehabilitation of people using prosthetic limbs.