Resistance is futile — or so Hollywood might have you believe about the burgeoning world of neuroscience.
In an updated version of the 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, evil-doers alter the memories of American veterans of the first Gulf War and then program them to kill on command years later.
For the original film, starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, the programmed victims were Korean War veterans, and hypnosis and brainwashing were the main tools of corruption. In the remake, starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, rogue scientists tap emerging brain science that has been tested or at least considered in recent years.
So how real is the possibility of mind control? It depends on how you define it, but scientists say current research comes close.
While a chip implant to change a person's memory hasn't surfaced, scientists have begun influencing memory using pharmaceuticals. And technology that has been tried extensively on animals can trigger the subjects to follow commands with the flick of a switch.
"These kind of innovations all have this feeling of being exciting, but also creepy," said Richard Glen Boire, founder of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, a nonprofit awareness group in Davis, Calif.
Enhancing and Repressing Memory
One study, for example, found nine healthy middle-aged pilots who took the Alzheimer's drug Aricept remembered flight-simulator lessons much better than nine others who took a placebo. Aricept has unwanted side effects, but researchers are working on other drugs that have been shown to promote long-term memory in animals.
Certain drugs known as beta blockers, meanwhile, have been shown to suppress emotional memory. Some feel this holds promise for people with post traumatic stress disorder who have trouble leaving behind wrenching events of their past.
Taken for therapeutic purposes, none of these drugs may seem particularly harmful, but their emergence demonstrates scientists' ability to tinker with memory. If scientists can both suppress and enhance memory, the movie's consultants argues it's not a far leap to imagine the ability to replace a horrific war memory with a false one that glorifies a fellow soldier, as happens to Denzel Washington's character.
"We use the idea in the movie that we have come to the point where we have the ability to influence the brain, not just for therapeutic purposes, but for political ones," said Jay Lombard, director of the Brain Behavior Center in Nyack, N.Y., and a consultant on the film.
The potency of so-called psychopharmaceuticals may be relegated to Hollywood screenplays for now, but the potential for corruption is real enough to have caught the attention of the President's Council on Bioethics.
"Neuroscience and related technologies not only lead to knowledge, they lead to power," warned Robert Michels of Cornell University Medical College while speaking to the council last January about possible implications of memory enhancement and suppression.
Records show the government has long been interested in using drugs to influence the brain. In fact, lawsuits are now pending in federal courts from people who claim they were guinea pigs in the CIA's infamous MKULTRA project. In this top secret research, agents gave LSD and other drugs to hundreds of unsuspecting Americans during the Cold War.
Stopping Raging Bull