New Reports Says Military Ignoring Brain Research

A new National Academy of Sciences report says the U.S. military intelligence community isn't adequately prepared to assess what's going on in brain science around the world. It says there could be significant advances that can have military uses.

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Future wars may not only depend on developments in weaponry. Research in brain science could lead to technologies from mind control to drugs that make troops alert or adversaries confused or to methods to help interrogators detect lies. U.S. Intelligence Agencies asked the National Academy of Sciences to assess global research in the field of brain science.

NPR's Richard Harris has this story on what they found.

RICHARD HARRIS: The book-sized study is chock-full of possibilities that seem to border on the science fiction.

But report chairman Kit Green says a surprising number of technologies could well emerge in the next 20 years. Starting with some of the most likely advances, it's quite possible scientists somewhere will develop an aerosol that can carry drugs from the air to the brain. And there's certainly no shortage of mind-altering drugs available today.

Professor KIT GREEN (Psychiatry and Radiology, Wayne State School of Medicine): All of those kinds of things which are being used now for direct prescriptive use and medication globally also can be turned and used in an opposite way.

HARRIS: Or consider the quest for a reliable lie detector. Green says a big chunk of the report deals with this technology.

Prof. GREEN: We did this because there's hardly a day that goes by that there isn't some newspaper article or magazine article that talks about being able to look into somebody's brain with functional brain (unintelligible), for example, and telling a person's state of mind in terms of not only their emotionality but in terms of whether they're telling the truth or whether they're telling a lie.

HARRIS: The report concludes that brain imagers don't work, at least not as lie detectors. However, Green says brain scanners have helped scientists realize that people's brains are organized differently depending on their culture. That means everybody doesn't make decisions the same way.

Prof. GREEN: We have hidden biases in the West in terms of what we think are values that result in an individual's making a decision of what is right and wrong. And so we tend to look at other people in other places and other cultures mere imaging what we think we know as right or wrong. But the way in which decisions are processed is quite different.

HARRIS: Deeper insights like this could, in the long run, matter more than the speculative technologies, such as mind control, brainwashing, or bionically enhanced soldiers.

Kit Green, who's from the Wayne State School of Medicine, says cultural differences even affect the way other countries conduct brain research.

Prof. GREEN: The way in which other countries than in the West are approaching trying to understand brain behavior is different from the linear hypothesis testing methodology that's done in the tried and true science method of the United States and Western Europe.

HARRIS: Those very different approaches could ultimately lead to some big surprises. Well, that's how the expectations develop in the West. So his most important recommendation to the defense intelligence community is it needs to increase international collaboration in brain science to figure out where those approaches could lead.

Now, the U.S. intelligence community has a checkered history in brain research, including clandestine testing of LSD some decades ago and the use of unreliable lie detector technology.

Robert Desimone from MIT, who reviewed a draft of the report, is pleased to see that the intelligence community is now interested in tapping into academic expertise on brain science.

Professor ROBERT DESIMONE (Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I'm very happy that our intelligence services are in consulting with the academy and getting the very best advice there is about near-term and long-term threats.

HARRIS: His advice: concentrate on the near-term threats, not the ones that read like science fiction.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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