March 21, 2012— -- By unlocking the mysteries of the mind, neuroscientists have opened the door to revolutionary technology -- technology the American military hopes to harness. From keeping troops more alert during exhausting missions to engineering intelligent drones, some experts argue brain research has changed the battlefield.
"There's a tremendous amount of research going on around almost every aspect of the brain you can think of," said Jonathan Moreno, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Mind Wars." "How much of this is related to national security and counterintelligence? It turns out to be quite a lot."
In an essay published Tuesday in the journal PLoS Biology, Moreno said neuroscientists may not consider how their work contributes to warfare.
"Technology doesn't care what it's used for," he said, explaining how the same research that could help a paralyzed person move a robotic exoskeleton could also help coordinate an attack by an unmanned weapon. "It's our ingenuity and the way we apply the technology, which does raise an interesting problem for scientists."
In the 1940s, physicists and engineers working on the Manhattan Project grappled with the implications of their work.
"Now it's the life scientists having a hard time with this," said Moreno, adding that researchers studying infectious diseases like bird flu might not consider the dark side of their discoveries. "Even Einstein didn't recognize the possibility of nuclear fission. He had to be convinced by a colleague to sign a letter to [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] about the Manhattan project."
Einstein later wrote that signing the letter, which led to the development of the first atomic bomb, was the "one great mistake" in his life.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's science agency better known as DARPA, received roughly $240 million to fund neuroscience research in 2011. Much of that research is "dual use," meaning it will benefit American civilians as well as military forces -- a reminder that many medical gains have originated in the trenches.
"Much of what's known about helping people with terrible burns came out of Vietnam," said Moreno. "Amputation came largely out of the civil war. Blood banks came out of Korea. Every war, sadly enough, has created opportunities for advances in medicine."
Beyond supporting the development of military devices like drones, brain research is helping troops learn the art of enemy deception and interrogation. It has also led to drugs designed keep troops awake and alert -- a feat once achieved with coffee and cigarettes.
Moreno said researchers are also looking for ways to predict the emotional response to war.
"Would it have been possible to identify some increased risk for a violent act?" he said, alluding to Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. "A lot of people believe those predictions are going to get a lot better."
Neuroscience may seem a far cry from the nuclear fission research that forever changed the world. But Moreno argues the resulting technology could change the rules of engagement.
"If you start making automatic fighting machines, you lose the military ethos," he said. "If the bad guys can't get to us because there are machines in the way, will they come here to get us? Are we inviting more attacks at home? Nobody knows the answer."
Moreno stressed that neuroscientists should be aware of the ethical issues associated with their work, adding that many nuclear scientists opposed the development of atomic weapons.
"We need to keep moving forward," he said. "But there needs to be professional standards."