Neuroscience (or neurobiology) is the scientific study of the nervous system. It is a multidisciplinary branch of biology that combines physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, developmental biology, cytology, mathematical modeling and psychology to understand the fundamental and emergent properties of neurons and neural circuits.
Neuroanatomists studied the brain’s shape, its cellular structure, and its circuitry; neurochemists studied the brain’s chemical composition, including its lipids and proteins; neurophysiologists studied the brain’s bioelectric properties; and psychologists and neuropsychologists investigated the organization and neural substrates of behavior and cognition. The understanding of the biological basis of learning, memory, behavior, perception, and consciousness has been described by Eric Kandel as the “ultimate challenge” of the biological sciences.
Cognitive neuroscience addresses the questions of how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry. The emergence of powerful new measurement techniques such as neuroimaging (e.g., fMRI, PET, SPECT), EEG, MEG, electrophysiology, optogenetics and human genetic analysis combined with sophisticated experimental techniques from cognitive psychology allows neuroscientists and psychologists to address abstract questions such as how cognition and emotion are mapped to specific neural substrates.
Advances and major investments by the broader community in neuroscience promise new insights for military applications. These include traditional areas of importance to the Army, such as learning, decision making, and performance under stress, as well as newer areas, such as cognitive fitness, brain–computer interfaces (an extension from earlier human–computer ergonomics), and biological markers of neural states.
Advances in such fields as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and bioengineering have resulted in instrumentation and techniques that can better assess the neural basis of cognition and enable visualization of brain processes.
Military has also been interested in Neuroscience for enhancing the cognitive performance of military personnel, speed their learning, or developing drugs that can keep the troops awake on the battlefield. Neuroscience has also been “militarized” or “weaponized,” including neurochemicals that can be used as weapons against the enemy.
These have the potential to provide new measures of training and learning for soldiers, while also shedding new light on traditional approaches to behavioral science used by the Army. Neural-behavioral indicators offer new ways to evaluate how well an individual trainee has assimilated mission critical knowledge and skills, and can also be used to provide feedback on the readiness of soldiers for combat.
The US Army is developing technologies meant to anticipate the behaviour and decisions of individuals as part of an effort to enhance manned-unmanned teaming that could one day enable autonomous systems to ‘autocomplete’ tasks for soldiers.
DARPA-funded research is working on everything from implanting brain chips to “neural dust” in an effort to alleviate the effects of traumatic experience in war. Invisible microwave beams produced by military contractors and tested on U.S. prisoners can produce the sensation of burning at a distance.
Hierarchical Levels of Neuroscience
At the molecular level, one examines the interaction of molecules—typically proteins—that regulate gene expression and translation into proteins. At the cellular level of neuroscience, one examines the interactions between neurons through their synaptic connections and between neurons and the supporting cells, the glia.
At the systems level, one examines the interconnected neural pathways that integrate the body’s response to environmental challenges. The sensory systems include the specialized senses for hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting, and balancing the body. The motor systems control trunk, limb, eye, and fine finger motions. Internal regulatory systems are responsible for, among other things, control of body temperature, cardiovascular function, appetite, and salt and water balance.
At the behavioral level of neuroscience research, one examines the interactions between individuals and their collective environment. Research at this level centers on the systems that integrate physiological expressions of learned, reflexive, or spontaneous behavioral responses. Behavioral research also looks at the cognitive operations of higher mental activity, such as memory, learning, speech, abstract reasoning, and consciousness.
NATO’s Cognitive Biotechnology (CBT)
CBT is the ability for technology to enhance and improve human thinking, sensing, coordinating, and acting upon the physical and societal environment. With CBT, our effectiveness—normally constrained by the limits of human physiology – can now be extended and augmented by biophysical, biochemical, or bioengineered means, Says NATO.
For instance, in the last decade scientists have accurately melded brain signals with machine interfaces to create mind-controlled prosthetics. More recently they have made this flow of information bi-directional, creating prosthetics that can now feel sensation and send these feelings back to the brain. Therefore these interfaces who earlier allowed us to train and control computers, have now become capable to improve and control our minds.
NATO considers three broad application areas, which can be called “the 3 R’s” – Recover, Raise, and Replace.
Recover includes the repair or rehabilitation of cognitive and biological impairments that prevent the mind and body from functioning effectively. The goal is to return abilities back to baseline functionality. Applications include helping injured soldiers recover their physical capabilities; healing traumatic brain injury; treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); recovering or (in cases of traumatic stress) suppressing memories; and restoring decision-making and executive functions.
Raise includes the augmentation and enhancement of cognitive and physiological function past an individual’s natural baseline, thereby effecting dramatic changes in operational effectiveness, preparedness, and training. Applications include sensory enhancement (such as seeing farther or hearing more acutely); faster information processing; quicker and more effective decision-making; more efficient learning and language acquisition; and greater physical exertion and endurance. What is true for individual capabilities could similarly be true for groups. CBT could be used to raise unit capabilities through distributed intelligence – that is, all members of the unit see and know what each individual member sees and knows, thus reducing the “fog of war” and improving rapid decision-making, as well as enabling more rapid acquisition and assimilation of new fighting techniques and technologies.
Replace includes the enhancement (and possibly substitution) of mental and physical functions past the bounds of human potential. Sensory connections could be replaced with computer interfaces, making human capabilities independent of their five natural senses. Verbal communication could be replaced by computer-aided telepathy or data downloads. Physical action could be replaced by remote robots or “loyal wingman” drones directed by the mind of the operator. This is perhaps the most futuristic form of enhancement, with most research and development nascent in nature. It is important to note that this form of enhancement does not completely remove human interaction, or else it would be simply another form of automation; it is really about the merger of human biology and mechanical actuation.
Cognitive Biotechnologies are at present focused on three main areas of research: biophysical, biochemical and behavioural.
Advances in the biophysical area centre on brain computer interfaces (BCI), which can be directly inserted into the human body or via transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). tDCS is a form of neuromodulation that uses constant, direct currents delivered via electrodes on the head, and can be worn or removed at will. While BCI was originally developed to provide assistive technologies (such as prosthetic arms and mentally controlled wheelchairs), recent developments in bi-directionality have allowed for enhanced sensing, for example, bionic eyes or other enhancements to situational awareness. Further applications of these technologies could lead to mental control of aircraft or ground vehicle systems; mind-guided drones or missiles; or the mechanisation of soldiers via exoskeletons and advanced sensors.
At the same time, tDCS applications have been shown to regulate the human brain itself, affecting the brain’s executive functions, learning mechanisms, memory, language processing, sensory perception, and motor functions. Current work with tDCS focuses on recovery from PTSD and treatment of mental ailments like obsessive compulsive disorder. But the technology also provides for the possibility of raising soldiers’ cognitive and physical capabilities: to analyse scenarios more easily and quickly; to retain and retrieve memories with greater acuity; to modulate perceptions of pain; to improve psychological self-protection; and to embed muscle memory and motor skills more quickly. Another controversial aspect of tDCS is the potential to look inside the mind of the user, to display and play back past memories on an external monitor, or even to insert synthetic memories and images into the mind.
Biochemical research has focused on enhancements to human physiology and cognitive function via drugs, genetic modification and biological derivatives. Combinations of nootropic compounds, both natural and synthetic, have been shown to rebalance and optimise neurochemistry for improved brain and nervous system function and efficiency. These have the potential for raising alertness and attention; speeding up reaction times; enhancing endurance and mental resilience; reducing apprehension and fear; and improving group dynamics and coordination. Recovery aspects include the treatment of depression, PTSD, memory loss, and dementia.
Behavioural research is focused on the modification and improvement of cognitive and motor function through learning algorithms, virtual reality and biofeedback methods. Virtual reality environments have already demonstrated their use in the training of pilots, tank crews and infantry. Mental acuity can be enhanced by training and gamification algorithms. Behaviour and personal habits can be altered by reinforcement learning methods. Applications focus on both improvement and recovery, with recent advances in the treatment of PTSD and behavioural disorders.
The integration of real-time cognitive and physiological user data (e.g., measures of attention, heart rate, etc.) opens a new vista for raising physical and cognitive performance. Motivational stimuli can be delivered back to the user based on his current physiological and mental state via machine learning-derived algorithms. The future of a personal coach on an intelligent FitBit that motivates and guides you to peak performance may not be too far away. The aggregation of anonymised data from individual performance outcomes into big datasets could further improve these algorithms. The result may be a FitBit that knows you better than you know yourself.
Ethical issues and responsible use
There are several ethical considerations for CBT that may transcend even AI in their complexity. First is the issue of personal agency. If CBT is able to motivate, enable, and even control human decision making and action, where does individual responsibility end? Are soldiers responsible for their actions when under the influence of advanced CBT, and under what conditions?
Relatedly, how does the Alliance ensure that there is sufficient consent for the use of CBT for individuals tasked to use the technology? These technologies can be invasive, both physiologically and mentally, and have the potential to cause harm, particularly as we do not fully understand their unintended cognitive and biological consequences.
In addition, significant privacy concerns will be raised once these technologies can enter our minds and see our most private thoughts and memories. What are the limits of such searches? And what are the protections for physiological and cognitive data, and who may store and control their dissemination or cause their deletion? More generally, what protections will we have against the potential of mind control, cognitive erasure, and reprogramming?
As in the case of AI, the Alliance and member governments will need to develop principles of responsible use, addressing such issues as privacy, consent, lawfulness, responsibility and governability, says NATO