Neuro-Enhancement: Terminator reloaded?

15. November 2013
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Students do it, doctors too, as do celebs of course – mental tuning is reportedly no marginal phenomenon. Yet things can also be done in a pill-less way, with physical-electrical interventive measures on the brain. According to a study, these methods could be used to advantage in the military.

Are we on the path from a meritocracy towards an enhanced performance society, in which we ever increasingly instrumentalise and exploit ourselves? This question is being asked by Armin Grunwald, director of the Office of Technology Assessment for German Parliament (TAB) and Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the Institute of Philosophy, KIT, in a current book.

One fact is certain: Since time immemorial, people have tried to physically and mentally optimise themselves, either with drugs or with medications. When attention turns to beefy biceps and very long breathing capacity, the discussion becomes one about doping; should the brain happen to go beyond its own boundaries, this gets called – using scientific euphemisms – “neuro-enhancement”. Psychoactive drugs or medications are usually used, ranging from caffeinated beverages and alcohol all the way to amphetamine preparations.

Here alcohol, there Stuka Tablets

In the military as well the use of performance enhancing and psychoactive drugs is certainly not an invention of the 21st century. Using alcohol, already in ancient times many a fighter probably loaded up before battle with the necessary courage in liquid form. The fact also that pharmacological neuro-enhancement is not a taboo in modern armies of the present, for example, was made public in 2003: Two U.S. Air Force pilots accidentally killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and injured several others – in order to be fit the U.S. pilots had consumed amphetamine-containing stimulant pills (dexedrine).

Electro is booming

Today, however, electric stuff is increasingly in, not only in automotive construction and medicine, but also for those who want to make themselves or others particularly bright and sharp. It seems in any case that the era of psychoactive pills is tending toward an end, clinical psychologist Dr. Vaughan Bell wrote recently in the British newspaper The Guardian. Instead of development of psychotropic drugs there will be more and more focus on physical interventive procedures performed on the brain. One well known example includes neurostimulative procedures, whose applicative uses on the brain have virtually exploded in number in recent years. Another example takes in optogenetic methods, experimental procedures in which genetically modified neurons are selectively influenced by means of light employed in an extremely precise manner. Electrical-based applications in medicine have for several years now been experiencing a renaissance of sorts, according to Leipzig medical historian Professor Holger Steinberg.

Neuromodulation: Established in patients

Neurostimulation or neuromodulation procedures have, in fact, in recent years been gaining increasing importance. They are used on patients and investigated during this use in contexts involving a very diverse range of diseases. The spectrum of indications ranges from pain, headaches and depression and psychoses such as schizophrenia, movement disorders and tinnitus all the way to obesity and anorexia nervosa and Alzheimer’s disease. Alongside Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), non-invasive stimulation procedures such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) have been in vogue now for several years. A multitude of studies have now proven the benefits of such procedures for people with varying diseases.

Politically correct, socially compatible

More and more studies have also shown that even with healthy people the use of neurostimulation methods in a targeted manner can lead to positive effects on, for instance, motor skills, attention and memory. What’s more behaviour can be influenced, such as the willingness to spontaneously tell the truth, but also the ability to lie, as well as the ability to to recognise threats and respond to them quickly. Such methods can be applied in sport and exercise science as well. According to experiments by Swiss neuroeconomists, such non-invasive methods can even increase the willingness to submit to social norms or to behave with compliance, so as to remain or to become socially compatible.

Enticements for military use

It is therefore hardly surprising that the military and other security organs are interested in the progress of neuroscientists’ work. Neuromodulation procedures such as non-invasive stimulation methods are just one example of methods which give rise to temptations here. Several experimental findings supported the hypothesis that non-invasive neurostimulation methods could also be used on soldiers and other security personnel, writes an author team led by Dr. Jean Levasseur Moreau from the University of Laval in Quebec in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. However there are still some issues to address, such as whether the experimental findings could be transferred into real life and whether the achievable effects are at all purposeful. And, of course, aspects of morality and safety would need to be discussed in detail, they add.

The big but

Significant concerns are expressed in this regard by two scientists, Dr. Bernhard Sehm and Dr. Patrick Ragert, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig. For example, they argue, there is the question of determining whether a military member can refuse such medical intervention at all, whether such a therapy therefore does not fundamentally violate the autonomy of those involved. It is unclear whether soldiers who would receive treatment as such would be responsible for their actions – such as those in combat. Another aspect is the long-term effects on health: perhaps negative effects offset those which are positive, so it might in the end be a matter of creating a zero-sum game. Above all, they say, it is a potentially very dangerous undertaking to apply knowledge gained in the laboratory in the real world of military conflicts, on the battlefield so to speak.

It’s worth mentioning that non-invasive neurostimulation procedures and psychoactive substances are not the only options for use in improving performance in a healthy brain: for quite some time research scientists and technicians have been investigating brain implants for cognitive enhancement, as bioethicist Dr. Frédéric Gilbert writes in a current book. This sure carries strong connotations of fantasy. Mind, in the words of the sick scientist Möbius in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s comedy “The Physicists”, “once something has been thought it cannot be erased”.

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