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Neuroscience, Ethics, and National Security: The State of

the Art
Michael N. Tennison1, Jonathan D. Moreno2*
1 Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States of America, 2 University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America

Abstract: National security orga- Research Projects Agency (DARPA), re- trolling vehicles, and assistance for detect-
nizations in the United States, ceived about US$240 million for the fiscal ing danger on the battlefield.
including the armed services and year of 2011, while the Army trails at In the late 1990s, scientists demonstrat-
the intelligence community, have US$55 million, the Navy at US$34 ed neurological control of the movement
developed a close relationship with million, and the Air Force at US$24 of a simple device in rats, and soon
the scientific establishment. The million [3]. thereafter, of a robotic arm in monkeys
latest technology often fuels war- The military establishment’s interest in [4]. More recently, a pilot study of
fighting and counter-intelligence understanding, developing, and exploiting BrainGate technology, an intracortical
capacities, providing the tactical neuroscience generates a tension in its microelectrode array implanted in human
advantages thought necessary to relationship with science: the goals of subjects, confirmed 1,000 days of contin-
maintain geopolitical dominance national security and the goals of science uous, successful neurological control of a
and national security. Neuroscience may conflict. The latter employs rigorous mouse cursor [5]. Non-invasive technolo-
has emerged as a prominent focus standards of validation in the expansion of gies for harnessing brain activity also show
within this milieu, annually receiv- promise for human use. Progress has
knowledge, while the former depends on
ing hundreds of millions of Depart-
the most promising deployable solutions recently been reported on a ‘‘dry’’ EEG
ment of Defense dollars. Its role in
for the defense of the nation. As a result, cap that does not require a gel to obtain
national security operations raises
ethical issues that need to be the exciting potential of high-tech devel- sufficient data from the brain. The ‘‘brain
addressed to ensure the pragmatic opments on the horizon may be over- cap’’ is reported to reconstruct movements
synthesis of ethical accountability hyped, misunderstood, or worse: they of humans’ ankle, knee, and hip joints
and national security. could be deployed before sufficiently during treadmill walking in order to aid
validated. rehabilitation [6].
Current state-of-the-art neuroscience, DARPA’s Augmented Cognition (Aug-
including new forms of brain scanning, Cog) program sought to find ways to use
Introduction brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), and neurological information gathered from
During the past decade, the US national neuromodulation, is being tapped for warfighters to modify their equipment
security establishment has come to see warfighter enhancement, deception detec- accordingly. For example, the ‘‘cognitive
neuroscience as a promising and integral tion, and other cutting-edge military cockpit’’ concept involved recording a
component of its 21st century needs. applications to serve national security pilot’s brain activity to customize the
Much neuroscience is ‘‘dual use’’ research, interests. cockpit to that individual’s needs in real
asking questions and developing technol- time, from selecting the least burdened
ogies that are of both military and civilian Brain–Computer Interfaces sensory organ for communicating infor-
interest. Historically, dual use has often mation to prioritizing informational needs
involved a trickle down of military tech- BCIs exemplify the dual use nature of and eliminating distractions [7]. Although
nology into civilian hands. The Internet, neuroscience applications. BCIs convert the Augmented Cognition moniker (and
for example, originated as a non-local, neural activity into input for technological funding mechanism) seem to have been
distributed means to secure military infor- mechanisms, from communication devices dropped, its spirit lives on in other
mation. In the case of neuroscience, to prosthetics. The military’s interests in DARPA projects. For example, the Cog-
however, civilian research has outpaced BCIs are manifold, including treatment nitive Technology Threat Warning Sys-
that of the military. Both National Re- modalities, augmented systems for con- tem is developing portable binoculars that
search Council (NRC) reports and De-
partment of Defense (DoD) funding reveal Citation: Tennison MN, Moreno JD (2012) Neuroscience, Ethics, and National Security: The State of the
ongoing national security interests in Art. PLoS Biol 10(3): e1001289. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001289
neuroscience and indicate that the military Published March 20, 2012
is quite eager to glean what it can from the Copyright: ß 2012 Tennison, Moreno. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the
emerging science [1,2]. To pursue cogni- Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any
tive neuroscience research, the Pentagon’s medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
science agency, the Defense Advanced Funding: The authors received no specific funding for this work.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Essays articulate a specific perspective on a topic of Abbreviations: BCI, brain–computer interface; DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; NRC,
broad interest to scientists. National Research Council; TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation
* E-mail:

PLoS Biology | 1 March 2012 | Volume 10 | Issue 3 | e1001289

convert subconscious, neurological re- healthy college students looking to maxi- ical capacity. For example, if a memory of a
sponses to danger into consciously avail- mize academic performance [11]. Wheth- traumatic event could be dampened, one
able information [8]. Such a system could er they do in fact improve performance is may be less likely to experience post-
reduce the information-processing burden open to disagreement [11,12]. Military traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.
on warfighters, helping them to identify pharmaceutical neuroenhancement came In 2002, scientists produced preliminary
and respond to areas of interest in the to the public’s attention in 2003 when evidence that propranolol, when adminis-
visual field more quickly. ‘‘two American pilots accidentally killed tered shortly after a traumatic event, could
Via intracortical microstimulation four Canadian soldiers and injured eight mitigate the long-term potential for internal
(ICMS), a neurologically controlled pros- others in Afghanistan’’ [13]. It turned out cues to invoke post-traumatic stress [21].
thetic could send tactile information back that the pilots had been taking Dexedrine, More recently, scientists demonstrated that
to the brain in nearly real time, essentially the amphetamine-based ‘‘go pills’’ often propranolol can similarly reduce PTSD
creating a ‘‘brain-machine-brain inter- used to reduce the fatigue induced by long symptoms when administered ‘‘after retrieval
face’’ [9]. The technology underlying this missions. of the memory of a past traumatic event’’, not
concept is already evolving, and some In 2008, a report for the US Army just immediately after the event itself [22].
researchers hope that optogenetics, which compared the effects of amphetamines Human enhancement may benefit indi-
both enables ‘‘precise, millisecond control with those of modafinil, a drug typically viduals and society in myriad ways, but it
of specific neurons’’ and ‘‘eliminates most used and approved to treat narcolepsy, in also poses many risks. In the civilian
of the key problems with ICMS,’’ will combination with sleep-aiding drugs. De- world, if more and more people begin
ultimately supplant the ICMS for sensory spite the controversy over ‘‘go pills’’, the enhancing their minds and bodies, indi-
feedback [9]. In addition to devising study found that for long-duration mis- viduals may eventually feel subtly coerced
prosthetics that can supply sensory infor- sions, both amphetamines and modafinil into enhancing themselves in order to
mation to the brain, brain-machine-brain have statistically similar effects of reducing remain competitive in school or the
interfaces may directly modify neurologi- the cognitive decline associated with workplace [10]. In the military context,
cal activity. Portable technologies like near fatigue [14]. Other reports state that the risk of coercion is much more
infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), for exam- modafinil significantly outperforms meth- pronounced [13]:
ple, could detect deficiencies in a warfigh- ylphenidate for cognitive enhancement in
ter’s neurological processes and feed that healthy individuals, ‘‘especially on people
According to the Uniform Code of
information into a device utilizing in- undergoing sleep deprivation’’ [15]. Re-
lated research has investigated other ways Military Justice, soldiers are re-
helmet or in-vehicle transcranial magnetic
to combat fatigue as well. Published in quired to accept medical interven-
stimulation (TMS) to suppress or enhance
2007, a DARPA-sponsored study showed tions that make them fit for duty.
individual brain functions [2].
Much of the technological evolution of that nasally administered orexin-A, a Experimental treatments are a hard-
warfare has introduced a distance between neuropeptide, restored the short-term er case, but the US government has
the parties involved. From the advent of memory of sleep-deprived monkeys [16]. shown a tendency to defer to
firearms to airplanes, aerial bombs to In its 2009 report for the US Army, the commanders in a combat situation
remotely operated drones, the visceral NRC recommends that TMS should also if they think some treatment is likely
reality of combat afforded by the physical be a part of further research on central to do more harm than good, even if
proximity to one’s enemy has steadily nervous system fatigue [2]. Studies suggest unproven.
eroded. In 2007, researchers taught a that TMS can enhance a variety of
monkey to neurologically control a walk- neurological functions in healthy individu- If a warfighter is allowed no autono-
ing robot on the other side of the world by als, from mood and social cognition to mous freedom to accept or decline an
means of electrochemical measurements of working memory and learning [17]. An- enhancement intervention, and the inter-
motor cortical activity [9]. Considering other noninvasive neuromodulation tech- vention in question is as invasive as remote
this in light of the work on robotic tactile nology, transcranial pulsed ultrasound, was brain control, then the ethical implications
feedback, it is easy to imagine a new phase demonstrated to have a number of prom- are immense. As Peter W. Singer has
of warfare in which ground troops become ising effects, from being ‘‘useful for sono- observed, ‘‘the Pentagon’s real-world re-
obsolete. poration in gene therapy’’ to ‘‘promoting cord with things like the aboveground
nerve regeneration’’ [18]. With the aid of testing of atomic bombs, Agent Orange,
Warfighter Enhancement both DARPA and US Army funding, and Gulf War syndrome certainly doesn’t
researchers envision and work toward inspire the greatest confidence among the
The therapeutic paradigm of medical developing portable, in-helmet ultrasound first generation of soldiers involved [in
practice aims to heal and reduce suffering, transducers capable of stimulating neural human enhancement]’’ [23].
to return the ill to a state of normal health. circuits with a better precision and depth
Yet, many interventions can be used by than TMS [19]. Direct current polariza- Neuroscientific Deception
the healthy to enhance specific traits or tion, or transcranial direct current stimula- Detection and Interrogation
capacities beyond the physiological or tion (TDCS), is another noninvasive,
statistical norm [10]. For example, BCIs DARPA-supported technology for neuro- National security agencies are also
can operate prosthetics for therapeutic modulation. ‘‘As might be expected, TDCS mining neuroscience for ways to advance
purposes, but they could also connect to can enhance cognitive processes occurring interrogation methods and the detection of
orthotic exoskeletons that enhance in targeted brain areas’’ [20], including deception. The increasing sophistication of
strength and endurance. Similarly, thera- learning and memory [17]. brain-reading neurotechnologies has led
peutic drugs like methylphenidate can While cognitive augmentation will en- many to investigate their potential appli-
help patients recover focus and attention, hance performance on some tasks, other cations for lie detection. Deception has
but they are also used, for example, by situations call for the reduction of neurolog- long been associated with empirically

PLoS Biology | 2 March 2012 | Volume 10 | Issue 3 | e1001289

measurable correlates, arguably originat- and scientists dispute the validity of brain ute to the greater good. These consider-
ing nearly a century ago with research into scan-based lie detection [24,32]. ations must be embedded and explored at
blood pressure [24]. Yet blood pressure, In addition to questions of scientific various levels in society: upstream in the
among other modern bases for polygraphy validity, these technologies raise legal and minds and goals of scientists, downstream
like heart and breathing rates, indicates ethical issues. Legally required brain scans in the creation of advisory bodies, and
the presence of a proxy for deception: arguably violate ‘‘the guarantee against broadly in the public at large.
stress. Although the polygraph performs self-incrimination’’ because they differ Although they may receive funding from
better than chance, it does not reliably and from acceptable forms of bodily evidence, national security agencies, neuroscientists
accurately indicate the presence of decep- such as fingerprints or blood samples, in may not consider how their work contrib-
tion, and it is susceptible to counter an important way: they are not simply utes to warfare. As we have seen, however,
measures. Because of these problems with physical, hard evidence, but evidence that neuroscience does, and will continue to,
the polygraph, researchers are eagerly is intimately linked to the defendant’s play a role in military operations. This fact
following up on preliminary successes in mind [32]. Under US law, brain-scanning spawns a plenitude of ethical concerns,
using new neurotechnological modalities technologies might also raise implications from which one may surmise that the
for detecting deception. for the Fourth Amendment, calling into sciences should divorce themselves from
‘‘Brain fingerprinting’’ utilizes EEG to question whether they constitute an un- the military completely. However, the fact
detect the P300 wave, an event-related reasonable search and seizure [33]. that the material explored in this paper is
potential (ERP) associated with the percep- Another neuroscientific field stimulating public information speaks to the possibility
tion of a recognized, meaningful stimulus, national security interest pertains to the that a discussion about the role and limits of
and it is thought to hold potential for hormone oxytocin, which has been shown neuroscience in national security may be
confirming the presence of ‘‘concealed infor- to augment the expression of various open and transparent. Bifurcating public
mation’’ [25]. The technology is marketed for virtues, from ‘‘trust and trustworthiness’’ science from national security may only
a number of uses: ‘‘national security, medical to ‘‘generosity and sacrifice’’ [34]. Without drive the same research underground,
elaborating, the NRC’s 2008 report spec- undermining its current public account-
diagnostics, advertising, insurance fraud and
ifies oxytocin as a ‘‘neuropeptide of inter- ability [13]. Thus, it would be impractical
in the criminal justice system’’ [26]. Similarly,
est’’ [1]. If the interest in question relates to to try to circumvent the ethical problems
fMRI-based lie detection services are cur-
pharmacologically incapacitating the psy- simply by cutting ties between science and
rently offered by several companies, including
chological defenses of interrogation sus- national defense.
No Lie MRI [27] and Cephos [28]. DARPA
pects, this may conflict with the Chemical Many would agree with George Mason
funded the pioneering research that showed
Weapons Convention (CWC). According University anthropologist Hugh Gusterson
how deception involves a more complex
to the CWC, a chemical that can cause that ‘‘[m]ost rational human beings would
array of neurological processes than truth-
‘‘temporary incapacitation’’ is defined as a believe that if we could have a world where
telling, and that fMRI arguably can detect nobody does military neuroscience, we’ll all
‘‘toxic chemical’’ and is therefore banned
the difference between the two [29]. No Lie be better off. But for some people in the
from such use [35]. Beyond this ethical
MRI also has ties to national security: they Pentagon, it’s too delicious to ignore’’ [37].
concern, oxytocin is far from being con-
market their services to the DoD, Depart- In any case, as we have suggested, the dual
firmed as a truth serum, and without
ment of Homeland Security, and the intelli- use possibilities for neuroscience render
further verification it should not be treated
gence community, among other potential such a world unlikely. Therefore, scientists
as such. The history of research on finding
customers [30]. themselves could become more aware of
the ultimate truth serum is long and storied.
The Defense Intelligency Agency (DIA)- the dual use phenomenon, whether their
Suffice it to say, ‘‘[T]he urban myth of the
commissioned 2008 NRC report, Emerging work is specifically funded by national
drugged detainee imparting pristine nug-
Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies, in gets of intelligence is firmly rooted and hard security bodies or not, in order to create a
which one of the present authors (JDM) to dispel’’ [36]. more self-conscious scientific enterprise.
participated, reiterates the conclusion of a They could also involve themselves in
2003 NRC report [31] that ‘‘traditional constructing the parameters to guide and
measures of deception detection technology
govern their relationships with national
have proven to be insufficiently accurate’’ This paper has detailed the national security agencies. Just as many nuclear
[1]. While the NRC ultimately recommends security establishment’s interest in and scientists opposed the development of
pursuing ‘‘research on multimodal method- ability to fund a panoply of diverse atomic weapons, contributing to the test-
ological approaches for detecting and mea- neuroscientific studies. It has also reviewed ban treaties of the 1960s and the drawdown
suring neurophysiological indicators of psy- the ethical, legal, and social issues that of armed missiles in the 1980s [13],
chological states and intentions’’, it cautions emerge from this relationship. Yet, discus- neuroscientists could consider and promul-
that like traditional polygraphy, neurological sions in themselves will not ensure that the gate their perspectives on the military
measurements do not directly reveal psy- translation of basic science into deployed implications and ethical issues associated
chological states [1]. In fact, many scholars product will proceed ethically or contrib- with their work.

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