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The Dark Side of Military-Funded Neuroscience

US Army(NEW YORK) -- By unlocking the mysteries of the mind, neuroscientists have opened the door to revolutionary technology -- technology that the American military hopes to harness.

From keeping troops more alert during exhausting missions to engineering intelligent drones, some experts argue that brain research has changed the battlefield.

"There's a tremendous amount of research going on around almost every aspect of the brain you can think of," said Jonathan Moreno, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Mind Wars.  "How much of this is related to national security and counterintelligence?  It turns out to be quite a lot."

In an essay published Tuesday in the journal PLoS Biology, Moreno said neuroscientists may not consider how their work contributes to warfare.

"Technology doesn't care what it's used for," he said, explaining how the same research that could help a paralyzed person move a robotic exoskeleton could also help coordinate an attack by an unmanned weapon.  "It's our ingenuity and the way we apply the technology, which does raise an interesting problem for scientists."

"Now it's the life scientists having a hard time with this," said Moreno, adding that researchers studying infectious diseases like bird flu might not consider the dark side of their discoveries.  "Even Einstein didn't recognize the possibility of nuclear fission.  He had to be convinced by a colleague to sign a letter to [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] about the Manhattan project."

Einstein later wrote that signing the letter, which led to the development of the first atomic bomb, was the "one great mistake" in his life.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's science agency better known as DARPA, received roughly $240 million to fund neuroscience research in 2011.  Much of that research is "dual use," meaning it will benefit American civilians as well as military forces -- a reminder that many medical gains often originate in the trenches.

"Much of what's known about helping people with terrible burns came out of Vietnam," said Moreno.  "Amputation came largely out of the civil war.  Blood banks came out of Korea.  Every war, sadly enough, has created opportunities for advances in medicine."

Beyond supporting the development of military devices like drones, brain research is helping troops learn the art of enemy deception and interrogation.  It has also led to drugs designed to keep troops awake and alert -- a feat once achieved with coffee and cigarettes.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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