The potential impact of neuroscience research is greater than previously thought

By Christopher Green, July 9, 2008

Jonathan Huang and Margaret Kosal have done an excellent job in carefully framing this discussion. They courageously include mention of how “existing international agreements are inadequate to address the security implications of neuroscience research.” The very notion of international agreements leads to an implicit belief that traditional arms control approaches could be relevant to this domain, when in fact, they are irrelevant. The pace of development of the technical areas–neuropharmacology, neuroimaging, and brain-machine interactions–that Huang and Kosal chose to address will outpace the hysteresis of the ponderous and arcane processes of traditional security control and disarmament.

The contents of a soon to be released National Academies study, “Military and Intelligence Methodology for Emergent Neurophysiological and Cognitive/Neural Science Research in the Next Two Decades,” undertaken by a 19-member panel that I chair, will complement the scope that Huang and Kosal propose. The study does not address arms control issues directly, yet implicit is ample evidence that in the next 20 years, the pace of development of neuroscience technologies related to the military and intelligence communities will swamp traditional arms control measures. Even in the domain of biomedical ethics, the one area that is most relevant to arms control, the rights of individuals are bound in cultural variability and are likely to be out of reach for agreements.

In discussing these issues, it is possible for this roundtable’s dialogue to stray toward a “liberal versus conservative” view of science, the brain, and the world. That would be unfortunate, and would likely result in a one-sided discussion, as people who work daily in the laboratories and hospitals doing emergent neuroscience clinical research would surely leave the discussion. The ethics issues at stake are real and worrisome; the chances of agreement on solutions are zero. Yet, the chances of agreement on the challenges are high. The pace of global research in the three areas under discussion (and additional areas discussed in detail in the Academies’ report) is even faster than is reported today in the mainstream press, which sinfully exaggerates what is really going on. Another point of agreement will be the really worrisome work being done outside the public eye.

We need a fresh sort of discussion to address these challenges. Four noncontroversial matters make the case for this new approach:

  • Several of the cognitive science applications that have the most enormous ethical implication (as described by Huang and Kosal) contain advances that are being made even faster than publicly thought. These advances do not include lie detection technology, whose potential to invade the privacy of individuals is an unrealistic scientific possibility (I’m waiting for a theory of mind to be developed first!). They do include an approach to near-real-time, multimodal cognitive measurements to “watch people think” while under stress (an achievable goal scientifically) not under duress (an unachievable goal scientifically).
  • Big Pharma is global. Drug discovery research is both ponderous (not as much as arms control, however) and increasingly beyond the control of governments and the public. The development of cognitive enhancers and anti-aging aides during the next two decades (the time needed for drug discovery to become successful) will be identical to what Huang and Kosal call out as ethically worrisome. But it will be beyond opprobrium. Drugs will be developed and marketed, and not necessarily under the auspices of traditional Western controls and good laboratory practices.
  • In the past, clinical and experimental psychology have been relatively easy to follow and understand for educated laypersons and life scientists, at least compared with biochemistry and biophysics, genomics and proteomics, and drug design and development. In the future, psychology experiments will increasingly be done in neuroimaging laboratories, which will be dependent on new physics, imaging scan sequence developments, and more complicated experimental designs. The work will be paid for by pharmaceutical companies or national militaries, bringing advanced signal processing and advanced mathematics into the experimental psychology laboratory. Not all of the “good” research will be done exclusively in the West–at least not before 2015. The results of this work will make sick people well and soldiers safer, but the technologies will not exclusively follow Western views on ethical questions, such as human stem-cell research, research on willing prisoners, and work on human-animal chimeras. The shrinking differences between the science of neural discovery aimed at helping sick people and the work being done to enhance soldier performance will likely dominate policy discussions at the end of the day. Notably, this will be seen in human and operator performance enhancement and neuropharmacology, as addressed by Huang and Kosal.
  • Individual scientists in the areas of cultural anthropology and ethnography will soon be trained in the physics of neuroimaging and neuropharmacology. Thus, learning about why people misbehave will be subjugated to learning new methods of unethical manipulation of innocent peoples’ behaviors. This roundtable may give a new and frightening meaning to the already scary 20-year-old dual-use construct.