Basic research is needed to better understand the effects of drugs that affect the brain

By Margaret E. Kosal, July 23, 2008

Thanks to my colleagues for furthering this conversation. I look forward to the results of the National Academy of Sciences study that Christopher Green is chairing.

The intersection between the cognitive sciences (of which neuroscience may be seen as a subset) and national security offers many puzzles–scientific, ethical, policy, and practical. Jonathan Moreno’s comments highlight the critical need for more research into the underlying physiological mechanisms of proposed neuropharmocological chemicals and their pharmacokinetics (how and how fast they are distributed, absorbed, processed, and excreted by the body). It is a challenge to understand the effect of a pharmacological chemical across a wide population of individuals, which would complicate using such an agent to deal with a notional hostage or insurgent situations. An aerobically fit 25-year-old male is likely to be affected very differently than a 75-year-old man, a 32-year-old pregnant woman, or an 8-year-old girl. The challenge and cost increases if each neurochemical has to be tested individually, and can be further confounded by the condition of subjects, such as increases in adrenaline or exhaustion, to which Moreno alluded. These challenges highlight the need for more basic research into the chemistry and biology of the brain and for the development of predictive models to understand and predict the underlying phenomena. To realize such research, robust funding for research in the basic sciences is critical.

The Defense Department has invested substantially in the scientific research community, including basic research support to academia. According to data publically available through the 2008 Presidential Budget Request, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invested at least $372 million in the cognitive sciences in 2007, including areas such as cognitive computing and bio-revolution. Other basic research investments in cognitive sciences across Defense included: $13.3 million for the Army, $13.9 million for the Air Force, and $10.4 million for the Navy in 2007.

Outside of Defense, the two significant funders of basic research in the cognitive sciences are the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NSF, with a nearly $6 billion budget in 2007, maintains active grant programs in perception, action, and cognition; cognitive neuroscience; neural systems; and collaborative research in computational neuroscience. The NIH reported $1.8 billion in appropriation in 2006 for its two agencies most relevant to brain research: the National Institute of Bio-Imaging and Bioengineering and National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke. It’s less clear how non-defense federal agencies appropriate basic research funding in the cognitive sciences.

Methods for inter- and intra-agency research coordination, as well robust public oversight, are needed across cognitive sciences research investment. Public oversight is particularly notable–and challenging–as it applies to potential applications of ethical concern, whether they are security related or not. When talking about the potential implications of emerging sciences such as the cognitive and neurosciences, partisan or political overtones can sometimes infect a discussion or policy. To counter this tendency, there is a critical need to ground possible scenarios in technical viability. Christopher delineates between the “achievable” and “unachievable” scientific goals, and this is one area that greatly concerns me.

Compared to biotechnology and even nanotechnology, civilian and military applications of cognitive sciences are nascent. Underlying some discussions of the applications of nanotechnology have been notional scenarios that fall into the “unachievable” category, e.g., concerns about self-replicating abiotic molecular assemblers and calls for international treaties limiting their production and use. These scenarios speak to the critical need for scientists and engineers to be involved in policy formation and public dialogue. Although stating that to readers of the Bulletin is speaking to the metaphorical choir.

Topics: Biosecurity