Weaponizing the Brain

There's an excellent and thought-provoking column in the latest Nature, arguing that basic neuroscience research will be weaponized unless researchers are vigilant. It is, of course, a scary prospect to imagine: a fleet of biological and chemical weapons targeted at the brain, and benefiting from decades of research into the details of our cellular pathways:

In October 2002, Chechen rebel fighters held more than 750 people hostage at a Nord-Ost production in a theatre in Moscow. The siege was broken only after special military forces used what the Russian Health Minister, Yuri Shevchenko, later described as a mixture of substances derived from fentanyl -- an opiate developed in the 1950s as an anaesthetic. Widespread relief that many of the hostages were saved was tempered by 124 of them being killed by the gas.

Chemicals with effects like those of fentanyl are often known as 'incapacitating agents'. These substances affect biochemical processes and physiological systems to produce a disabling condition such as unconsciousness, and in higher concentrations can cause death. With effects that last from hours to days, they are distinct from standard riot-control agents such as CS gas, which cause sensory irritation that disappears shortly after termination of exposure.

That Russian special military forces resorted to using fentanyl in Moscow is a possible harbinger of the wider militarization of advances in the biological sciences.

Of course, various militaries have long been interested in psychoactive agents, from those CIA experiments with LSD (the drug turned out to be yet another failed truth serum) to US Army experiments with BZ, a gastrointestinal drug that can cause delirium. But there is something different when we know enough about the brain to reverse-engineer compounds that interact with specific targets, be it opioid receptors or a signal transduction pathway necessary for long-term memory storage. (Of course, getting these compounds across the blood-brain barrier is a different story.) The point, though, is that modern neuroscience - like physics in the 1930s - must increasingly grapple with the fraught possibilities of its new knowledge. Let's just hope that we never yearn for a time when scientists could only find psychoactive drugs by accident...

Via Mind Hacks

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"Of course, getting these compounds across the blood-brain barrier is a different story."

I don't see this as a significant technical barrier. Nanotechnology is being developed in large part to allow targeted delivery of drugs. Nanoparticles can be inhaled. It's easy to go from there to all sorts of nightmare scenarios.

"Some companies are already marketing oxytocin on the back of studies showing that a nasal squirt of the hormone increases trust in humans. Even though the effectiveness of commercial sprays is doubtful, such research opens up the possibility of a drug that could be used to manipulate people's emotions in a military context"

I find this even more scary. Black market trading of these neuro-chemicals, for both military and non-military misuse looks imminent.

How on earth do you go about preventing this happening. It seems all but impossible.

By Aida Mehonic (not verified) on 21 Aug 2009 #permalink

The flip side is that if a nasal squirt of oxytocin increases trust in humans wouldn't it be a good idea to spray a few tons over the North Korean capital area?
But then of course there'd be someone who would sneak up and kill the leaders before it all wore off. Bummers

Its more like weaponizing incomplete knowledge, which then is just information/data. That incomplete knowledge is dangerous, has been ancient wisdom.