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Why You Should Care about Pentagon Funding of Obama's BRAIN Initiative

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In two recent posts (here and here), I complained that the big new BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, to which Barack Obama has committed $110 million next year and possibly billions over the next decade, may be premature.

I stupidly neglected to mention an important reason to look askance at the initiative: its biggest funder is the Pentagon, more specifically the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. According to the White House, Darpa is putting up $50 million, more than the National Institutes of Health ($40 million) and National Science Foundation ($20 million).

There's nothing new about the militarization of brain science. Ten years ago, when I was writing an article on how information is encoded in the brain, Darpa was already a major funder of research on neural coding and neural prosthetics. Darpa program manager Alan Rudolph told me back then that the agency was interested in a wide range of potential applications, including "performance enhancement" of soldiers via either implanted or external electrodes linked to electronic devices.

One specific possibility, Rudolph told me, was a brain-machine interface that would allow soldiers to control a jet or other weapon system through thought alone, as in the 1982 Clint Eastwood film Firefox. In the film, the thought-control device utilizes external electrodes, but Rudolph said that electrodes could also be implanted in the brain. "Implanting electrodes into healthy people is not something we're going to do any time soon," Rudolph explained, "but 20 years ago no one would have thought we’d put a laser in the eye either. So this is an agency that leaves the door open on what's possible." Yes, Rudolph was talking about that familiar fantasy of science fiction, bionic soldiers.

So what's changed over the past decade? Several things come to mind: First, major media have become less concerned about the militarization of brain science. A decade ago, conservative New York Times pundit William Safire worried that science might allow powerful institutions to "hack into the wetware between our ears." Today, few prominent journalists question Darpa's role in the BRAIN Initative. The best critique I've read is by physician/blogger Peter Freed, who asserts that Pentagon funding of the BRAIN Initiative fulfills President Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 warning about the growing power of the "military-industrial complex."

Second, as I have pointed out previously, neuroscientists are pursuing military funding much more eagerly and openly, as evidenced both by the BRAIN Initiative and by this 2009 publication of the National Research Council, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications. Overseen by leading neuroscientists, including Floyd Bloom and Michael Gazzaniga, the report advises researchers how to tap into military funding. The report advocates "collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to employ neuropharmaceuticals for general sustainment or enhancement of soldier performance, and improving cognitive and behavioral performance using interdisciplinary approaches and technological investments."

The third change over the last decade is that the Pentagon has become much cagier about its motives in supporting brain research. Darpa now claims that its primary interest in brain science is treatment of injured soldiers. As the White House put it, Darpa hopes that brain science will "dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat warfighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury and memory loss."

For a more candid look at the Pentagon's long-standing interest in neuroscience, see Mind Wars by respected bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania. Originally published in 2006, the book was re-released last year with updated information. As I pointed out last fall, Moreno documents the Pentagon's interest in neurotechnologies that can enhance soldiers' capabilities as well as disabling and monitoring the minds of enemies.

Barack Obama has asked his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore the "ethical, legal, and societal implications raised by [the BRAIN] initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience." Let's not leave it up to government officials and appointees—and neuroscientists--to weigh the pros and cons of neuroweapons. As William Safire, writing not just about neurotechnologies but biotechnology in general, warned more than a decade ago, we need "to get this far-reaching, soul-searching debate out of the ivory tower, onto the floor, onto the tube and into print until it penetrates every sentient being's consciousness."

Image: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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