Our Brains Go To War

Fynn Comerford
6 min readJun 15, 2021

Particularly in the last centuries, scientific breakthroughs have challenged society with significant ethical concerns and questions. Scientists and innovators alike have had to consider the long-term consequences of their
discoveries and their responsibilities as scientists. Nevertheless, in many cases, the consequences of discoveries and technological advances have shown to be unpredictable and have displayed their destructive forces, more often than not propelled by military interests. Herbicides and defoliants like triiodobenzoic acid (TIBA) have been developed into chemical weapons like
agent orange and have been employed in the Vietnam war. Fundamental scientific breakthroughs such as the discovery of the energy-mass equivalence by Albert Einstein ultimately also ignited the pursuit of nuclear
weapons. These are only a few examples of how initially ‚peaceable‘ discoveries can be remodeled for a second use. And neuroscience proves to be everything but an exception. The study of brain and behavior always has been accompanied by ethical issues, yet recent advances in neuroscience, giving rise to high-tech neurotechnologies, cutting-edge clinical and pharmaceutical
applications, and much more confront society with an exceptional extent of bioethical implications. Some argue neuroscience has been weaponized over the last decades, thus, this implies neuroscience has been established as a peaceable science in the first place and ignores the fact it actually was developed in the post WW2 period by military-funded American institutions like Harvard and MIT (Ewing, H., A., 2016). Hence, its alluring use for armed conflicts has been at least partially motive of its ‚creation‘ and definitely one
of its driving forces ever since. The employment of neuroscience in modern warfare, essentially, can be subdivided into two categories: Human enhancement and soldier rehabilitation on the one side, degradation of enemies’ performance and use for interrogation susceptibility on the other.
There are many ways in which neuroscience shapes and has shaped the effectiveness and efficiency in combat. Although the neurological effect of stimulant drugs such as mixtures of cocaine and vodka in the ‚red army’
during WWII, Pervitin for the German Luftwaffe during its invasion of western Europe, Amanita mushrooms consumed by Viking warriors and much more has been exploited in basically every war (Rickett, O., 2016),
psychostimulants are now used with unforeseen precision. The goal remains the same; to overcome physical and mental boundaries. Instead of using drugs with dangerous potential side effects like cocaine, highly specialised neuropharmaceuticals such as amphetamines, modafinil and methylphenidate are now developed and adopted by military forces around the globe. Disinhibiting substances such as amphetamines and close derivates which are mainly used by the U.S. airforce promise significant increases in concentration and alertness while at the same time decreasing the paralysing effects of fear and exhaustion, crucial characteristics for highly focused pilots and soldiers on critical missions. Sleep deprivation also has a critical
influence on the soldier’s performance. The dopaminergic stimulant modafinil as an alternative to amphetamines is the core component of military effort to find countermeasures for a fatigue-related decrease
of performance in combat situation. The French foreign legion, the Indian and U.S. Airforce are only some on the countries that have admitted to employ Modafinil. The physical and mental boundaries of soldiers are being widened in increasingly effective ways as neuroscientific research uncovers new ways to promote cognitive capabilities. However, the neurological impact of pharmaceuticals also plays a crucial role in the rehabilitation of soldiers.
Every day, more than 22 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans commit suicide (Newman, B., 2015). Wars keep repeating and so does the resulting pattern. In every war, thousands of soldiers survive only to later end there lives with their own hands. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most common cause for suicides of veterans. Soldiers with PTSD internally relive traumatic events repeatedly, leaving them in a state of severe anxiety, irritability and with feelings of guilt. These symptoms usually come along with other conditions such as sleep disorders. Again, neuroscientific research forms a crucial element of the problem’s countermeasure. Scientists have suggested that inhibiting the traumatic memories from being formed by inhibiting the
synthesis of certain proteins could significantly reduce the risk of being affected by PTSD. Other approaches are the employment of chemicals such as propranolol which compete with relevant substrates and, thus,
block beta-adrenergic receptors in the brain that are involved in the consolidation of particularly distressing memories. The brain’s natural neuroplasticity is also being used to reshape memories. A whole range of
other drugs and psychopharmaceuticals are being developed every year to facilitate soldier rehabilitation. The exploitation of neuroscientific research to promote military efficiency is in no way restricted to the
development of neuropharmaceuticals as it offers disruptive technological applications at the same time. Brain-machine interfaces, in particular, play a vital role in the development of progressive technologies of warfare. By ‚mapping‘ the electrical activity resulting from specific stimuli, the remote control of machines with the brain has become an option (Song, E., 2017). Possible resulting applications are the remote control of unmanned drones, involving particularly difficult ethical questions about the responsibility of actions, and applications in brain-computer interface based neuro-prosthetics. Lost motoric capabilities can be re-established non-invasively through an interface of prosthetics and the peripheral nervous system. With transcranial stimulation of the frontal cortex, the physiological structure of the brain can be modified in order to permanently enhance concentration, creativity, speed of information processing and much more. Furthermore, he ‚symbiosis’ of artificial intelligence and neuroscience provides several more
neurotechnological possibilities with even more possible military-related applications. On the other hand, there are at least as many practices on the harm side of the implementation of neuroscientific research in a military context.
As the dual use framework predicts, most of the named applications can be misused and transformed to become harmful (Howell, A., 2016). Mapping and analysing brain signals to predict motoric intentions can
also be used to approximate a person’s thoughts and intentions. What was thought to be an intangible human property, thoughts and emotions, can now not only be predicted with an increasing degree of precision, but can also be manipulated externally with transcranial stimulation. This can be used to enhance the performance of a military’s own soldiers as well as for the exact opposite. While psychoactive and psychotropic drugs like scopolamine, mescaline and amphetamines have been in use since the 1920’s to improve interrogation susceptibility and as a form of pharmaceutical torture, the
advances of the 21st century have produced even more comprehensive methods to degrade enemies’ capabilities. These methods are regularly tested on U.S. prisoners. Soldiers can be disorientated, paralysed and their sensory perception can be manipulated to decapacipate them on the battlefield. A particularly concerning development is the infamous Active Denial System (ADS), a directed-energy technology that emits highly focused energy (in GHz range) penetrating peripheral skin layers and impacting sensible nerves
in the skin. To put in simple terms: It is now possible to remotely induce pain, more specifically the feeling of burning, into the enemy in combat, potentially even into civilians or prisoners for effective crowd control.All of
these applications indicate the dual-use character of neuroscientific discoveries and technologies. The intersection of war and contemporary neuroscience imposes substantial ethical and legal issues upon
society and the political environment. Who is responsible once machines and the human operator blur intoone? This is only one of the numerous questions society will have to deal with in near future. Despite the efforts of International conventions to create legislative frameworks, the dichotomous categorisation into ‚bad‘ and ‚good‘ use is a questionable simplification. No matter whether neuroscientific evidence is used to relieve a soldier from post-traumatic stress or to remotely control lethal weapons only with his brain, the
basic motive is to improve the efficiency of warfare. Considering the fact, that ‚less efficient‘ methods in previous wars have claimed millions of lives, institutions involved in research should seriously reconsider
how they let military funding influence their research priorities.

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Fynn Comerford

CoS at Lorentz Bio | Frequency Bio Fellow | Neuroscience at The University of Edinburgh | Founder of edventure | iGEM 2020 | Videographer