Iran and China are developing the ability to use sophisticated neuroscience, while U.S. intelligence officials find themselves ill prepared to monitor scientific advances that could threaten U.S. interests, a new report commissioned by the Pentagon says. The report for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) calls on U.S. intelligence officials to closely monitor global advances in neuroscience.
Although a handful of emerging nations are said by experts to be gaining capacity to conduct neuroscience research, the study by 16 scientists under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC), a nonprofit institution that provides advice on science and technology, focuses on just two.
Jonathan D. Moreno, professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a committee member, explained: “Take the short list of nations that have the capacity to do sophisticated neuroscience and cross-check that with the list of nations that are either ideological enemies of the U.S. or capable of aiding those enemies. You end up with two, China and Iran.”
The panel searched for evidence of research into cognitive neuroscience and biotechnology, specifically for military uses, for both countries.
Though the report paints China and Iran as rising science powers in fields such as biotechnology, it offers no evidence that either is currently steering neuroscience work to military ends.
Nonetheless, many experts see the report as a wake-up call for U.S. intelligence.
“Technological advancements in specific fields of neuroscience have implications for U.S. national security and should therefore be monitored consistently by the intelligence community,” the scientists write.
The report looks at trends during the next two decades, but experts say the global neuroscience race has heated up, with about 500 global companies trying to develop brain-targeting drugs and devices, according to NeuroInsights, an industry group.
Like biotechnology, neuroscience and neurotechnology - the engineering of devices and drugs targeting the brain and nervous system - have therapeutic and military uses. Officials with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency openly talk of next-generation wish lists that include pills that decrease fear or enhance cognition in soldiers and devices that connect human thoughts with devices such as prosthetic limbs and unmanned aircraft.
Meanwhile, such nations as India, Brazil, China and Iran are increasing their capabilities in fields related to neuroscience - a fact that worries U.S. intelligence officials concerned with threats involving “neuroweapons” that act on the brain and nervous system.
The NRC panel, consisting of 16 scientists given classified and unclassified briefings from about two-dozen U.S. institutions doing neuroscience, looked abroad for emerging science threats.
The panel used open-source journals and Internet documents to show that China and Iran are growing their capacity to conduct sophisticated science. Yet despite receiving classified briefings from U.S. officials tasked with preventing “foreign technology surprises,” the panel came up with no proof that Tehran or Beijing is engaging in classified military work dealing with neuroscience or technology.
The report says that China “is fast becoming an international superpower and a haven for biotechnology research,” in part because of relatively inexpensive labor and biotechnological expertise in universities and companies. It also cites a 2007 Chinese strategy paper saying that the People’s Liberation Army is trying to “make major breakthroughs in some basic, pioneering and technological fields of strategic importance.”
The panel concludes that “although the [strategy document] does not directly mention specific details as to what technologies and science are to be used, it would not be too great a leap to suggest that the Chinese government is probably pursuing capability in cognitive neurosciences to enhance its national defense.”
In the case of Iran, the panel states that it was easy to find information about the country’s biotechnology programs and research groups on the Internet. “But it is not at all straightforward to find out how much of the research is connected to cognitive neuroscience and possible advances in science related to national defense.”