Royal Society says new neuroscience research likely to improve the lives of our armed forces

07 February 2012

Scientists are hopeful that advances in our understanding of the human brain will improve the lives and performance of the UK’s armed forces however they have warned that careful consideration should be given to how research is prioritised so as not to come at a cost to other applications.

A report published today (7 February) by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, also aims to debunk some common myths surrounding how militaries might use this type of research.

The Royal Society report, which looks at neuroscience research in a military and civilian law enforcement context, considers two main goals for research into the brain: performance enhancement (improving the efficiency of one’s own forces) and performance degradation (diminishing the performance on one’s enemy). The report reviews the sophisticated technology being developed and in some cases already being used or tested, highlighting where legislation needs to be put in place. The authors call on the UK government to be as transparent as possible about research being conducted for use by the military and law enforcement bodies.

Professor Rod Flower FRS, chair of the Royal Society working group that wrote the report and Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London, says:

“The application of neuroscience research in the development of enhancement and degradation technologies for military and law enforcement use raises significant ethical considerations. Support for this type of research is potentially diverting funding and resources away from other important social applications such as the treatment of neurological impairment, disease and psychiatric illness. This is why it should be subject to ethical review and as transparent as possible.

The neuroscientists conducting this research also need to be aware that knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes.”

Brain Waves Module 3: Neuroscience, conflict and security which was written by a group of experts in neuroscience, international security, psychology and ethics, suggests that findings from neuroscience research could be used to optimise the stages that military personnel typically pass through: recruitment, training, operational performance and the unfortunate yet common stage of rehabilitation following injury.

For example, it is in the interest of the military to screen individual abilities that are relevant to a particular task. While one person may excel in detecting targets in a cluttered environment, another might surpass him/her in decision making skills while under stress – advances in neuroscience, such as neuroimaging and brain stimulation techniques, could help pinpoint these differences during screening and recruitment. 

Neuroscience, including advances in neural interface technologies (e.g. controlling a machine directly with a human brain) and neuropharmacology (the study of drugs affect cellular function in the nervous system), has already improved the prognosis for individuals suffering from conditions such as paralysis, severed limbs and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  There is also a great deal of research taking place around drugs that improve the alertness, attention and memory of military personnel while in the field.

The report also examines applications of neuroscience that may give rise to potential weapons that could be of interest in a military or law enforcement context - particularly advances in neuropharmacology and drug delivery leading to the potential development of incapacitating chemical agents. The authors point out that though the development of these agents is constrained by a comprehensive legal framework, perceived ambiguity within the treaty prohibiting chemical weapons (CWC) could under certain interpretations, provide latitude for their development. They also emphasise that current scientific evidence suggests developing a safe incapacitating chemical agent is not possible in the foreseeable future.

The report calls on the UK government to publish a statement on the reasons for its apparent shift in position on the interpretation of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) law enforcement provision. The 1993 CWC prohibits the development, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, including those that cause temporary incapacitation; however it does contain an exemption which permits the production and use of toxic chemicals for ‘law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes’ that is open to some ambiguity. 

In 1992 a statement given to the UK parliament by the then Foreign Office Minister indicated that that the UK considered riot control agents to be the only toxic chemicals permissible for law enforcement purposes. However a more recent statement in August 2009 indicates a less restrictive interpretation of the CWC and suggests that the use of incapacitating chemical agents for law enforcement purposes would be in compliance with the CWC as long as they were in types and quantities consistent with that permitted purpose.

Professor Flower FRS says:

“We know that neuroscience research has the potential to deliver great social benefit – researchers come closer every day to finding effective treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and addiction. However, understanding of the brain and human behaviour coupled with developments in drug delivery also highlight ways of degrading human performance that could possibly be use in new weapons, especially incapacitating chemical agents.

This is why it is so important that UK government is clear about its reasons for the changes made to its interpretation of the law enforcement exemption in the CWC. It’s absolutely crucial that countries adhering to the CWC address the definition of incapacitating chemical agents under the CWC at the next Review Conference in 2013.”