Last week we addressed the issue of the slow pace of science, compared to the fast-paced world of military technology. Tennison and Moreno published an article in PLoS Biology delineating their concern that the production and implementation of certain new technologies may move faster than the time it takes scientists to determine the dangers and side effects as well as establish guidelines for use. We looked at computer-brain interfaces, and the potential problems with such an intimate connection to technology. Today we will briefly look at combatant enhancement. This was originally going to be a two-part series, but the issue of using magnetic resonance imaging for lie detection merits its own post. We will look at this issue next week.
Technically a computer-brain interface could be considered a type of cognitive enhancer; however Moreno and Tennison put it in a separate category. By cognitive enhancement, they are referring to the use of pharmaceuticals to enhance mental capabilities. This is one type of technology that has already been implemented. Combatants, particularly pilots, have used regimens of uppers and sedatives for decades (so called “go” and “no-go” pills). In 2003, the military’s use of amphetamines was put in the spotlight after an accidental friendly fire in which the pilot reportedly thought he was under attack (see here for a Wired article). Oftentimes these regimens are used to help pilots stay alert for longer missions. The military is continuing to look into pharmaceutical possibilities to improve pilot alertness, stave off jet lag, improve reaction time, and manage longer missions and longer hours, as well as pharmaceuticals to deal with depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder. As Tennsion and Moreno report, they are also looking into transcranial direct current stimulation, a noninvasive procedure to target particular areas of the brain.
There are several ethical concerns with the use of cognitive enhancers in society and those concerns are the same for military personnel. However, combat situations are special circumstances, which make the ethics a little less clear. One concern that was mentioned in this article was the pressure to take enhancers to keep up so that one’s career is not jeopardized. Theoretically, people are free to refuse medications; however, this freedom is only in name if there is pressure or coercions to use cognitive enhancers. In a combat situation, if it is an issue of who can better stay alive, then the “choice” to take medications is not really a choice and may be more justified than the everyday person taking enhancers for a leg up.
Another issue is that different people react to medications differently. Using amphetamines on a continuous basis in a high-stress situation may have different affects on the body than use under less stressful situations. What is particularly troubling is how little we know about the mental effects from taking these pharmaceutical regimens. What does it do to a person to have him or her take an amphetamine to complete the mission, Ambien to sleep at night, and anti-depressants to deal with the mission?
From a more philosophical standpoint, one could ask: Are we chemically creating a different kind of soldier? Do we want our soldiers to have paranoia or confusion, a possible side effect of amphetamines, some memory loss from sleeping pills, and emotional numbness from Prozac?
(See here for a thought-provoking Time article on antidepressants for military combatants.)