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Ethics of 'neuro-weaponry' hard to wrap your brain around

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Mind control will be a primary focus of neuro-weaponry, which is expected to reshape warfare, neuroscientists confirm.

Emerging technologies will give birth to highly sophisticated adversarial applications centred on brain science; conventional battlefield methodology could soon fade into history.

"We are approaching a time when brain science will be critical to our national security," confirmed James Forsythe of Sandia National Laboratories

According to James Giordano of Georgetown University and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and colleague Rachel Warzman at Georgetown University, the battlefields of the future will be shaped by advances in neuroscience focused for military purposes.

"Major breakthroughs (in brain science) relevant to national security are both viable and imminently achievable," Giordano suggested at a recent neuroscience conference.

The result would be an "arsenal of neuro-weapons," concluded Jonathan Marks at Penn State University.

Such an arsenal could include "drugs, microbiological agents and toxins from nature," explained Jonathan Moreno at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the use of "brain-machine interfaces," the hormone oxytocin could be used to make prisoners more co-operative in divulging sensitive military information. Other substances would make soldiers forget atrocities they might have committed.

According to Forsythe and Giordano, adversarial elements could include: "nanoparticles engineered to affect specific brain processes," "super soldiers created through pharmaceuticals and/or brain stimulation" and "brain imaging for interrogation-lie detection" as well as the use of "intelligent machines."

Other possibilities being considered by military strategists include an aerosolized shellfish neurotoxin fatal to humans in a few minutes, hallucination-causing bacteria and organisms that access and destroy human brains by crawling up the olfactory nerves.

Such technologies would have been unimaginable not so long ago, but the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has been focusing on the military applications of brain science, Moreno confirmed.

Some of its projects, posted on its website, include "neuroscience for intelligence analysts" and "accelerated learning."

For the past several years, DARPA, the military research and development agency tasked with maintaining U.S. military technology superiority, "has engaged in research on direct neurological control," confirmed Stephen White at Cornell Law School.

But such a dramatic alteration in the way warfare is waged has legal implications, analysts suggest.

According to White, there are concerns with regard to "criminal responsibility for war crimes."

"Science and technology should never be used to do bad things," Giordano pointed out, cautioning that history shows scientists often generate information misused for unintended military purposes.

White noted that international law has no "per se prohibition" with regard to the direction that neuro-weaponry appears to be taking.

Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2012 A11

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