A Breakthrough in the Checkered History Of Brain Hacking

A recent military-funded program could up-end the way brain research is conducted.

An actual human brain displayed inside a glass box, as part of an interactive exhbition 'Brain: a world inside your head', in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 21, 2009.
National Journal
July 2, 2014, 7:07 a.m.

Sci­ent­ists fun­ded by the De­fense De­part­ment have just an­nounced a break­through that could al­low re­search­ers to cre­ate in 220 days an ex­tremely de­tailed pic­ture of the brain that pre­vi­ously would have taken 80 years of scans to com­plete.

The mil­it­ary has been look­ing to build bet­ter brain hacks for dec­ades with res­ults that ranged form the fright­en­ing to the com­ic­al. This latest de­vel­op­ment could re­vo­lu­tion­ize the study of the brain but also the na­tion­al se­cur­ity ap­plic­a­tions of neur­os­cience.

Sci­ent­ists at Stan­ford Uni­versity who de­veloped the new way to see the brain in great­er de­tail, out­lined in the journ­al Nature Pro­to­cols, said that it could mark a new era of rap­id brain ima­ging, al­low­ing re­search­ers to see in much great­er de­tail not only how parts of the brain in­ter­act on a cel­lu­lar level but also to bet­ter un­der­stand those in­ter­ac­tions across the en­tire brain.

“I ab­so­lutely be­lieve this is go­ing to trans­form the way that we study the brain and how we per­form neur­os­cience re­search,” said Justin Sanc­hez, pro­gram man­ager for the Neuro Func­tion, Activ­ity, Struc­ture, and Tech­no­logy, or Neuro-FAST, pro­gram at the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency, or DARPA, which fun­ded the re­search. “What we’re say­ing here today is that we can de­vel­op new tech­no­logy that changes how we ob­serve and in­ter­act with the cir­cuits of the brain.”

The most com­mon re­search meth­ods for ex­plor­ing the brain today in­volve the sens­ing of brains’ elec­tric­al activ­ity, a tech­nique called EEG, or ob­serving of hemo­globin flow un­der func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­on­ance, called fMRI. Rather than simply listen to the brain’s thought spasms of elec­tro-mag­net­ic activ­ity, the Stan­ford re­search­ers’ tech­nique in­stead uses light to re­veal caus­al re­la­tion­ships in the cir­cuits them­selves. “It’s all about op­tic­al in­ter­faces for the brain, op­tic­al tech­niques to im­age the brain, op­tic­al tech­niques to re­cord activ­ity from the brain and op­tic­al tech­niques to re­cord neur­ons and their fir­ing ef­fects form oth­er neur­ons,” said Sanc­hez.

This tech­nique is re­lated to the emer­ging sub­field of op­to­gen­et­ics, and while it is con­sidered the cut­ting edge of neur­os­cience re­search, it’s not new. But the tech­nique pi­on­eered by the Stan­ford re­search­ers al­lows for three-di­men­sion­al visu­al­iz­a­tion that is both gran­u­lar and wide enough to en­com­pass the en­tire brain. Said Sanc­hez, “Tra­di­tion­ally, with the op­to­gen­et­ic tech­nique, you really don’t have the struc­ture to go along with the ac­tiv­a­tion. That’s why the Neuro-FAST pro­gram is so ex­cit­ing.”

Sanc­hez and DARPA of­fi­cials were adam­ant (ex­ceed­ingly so) that the in­tent of the Neuro-FAST pro­gram is to ad­vance brain sci­ence broadly. Of­fi­cials were re­luct­ant to dis­cuss any oth­er spe­cif­ic ap­plic­a­tions for that re­search. But that doesn’t mean those ap­plic­a­tions don’t ex­ist, or that the mil­it­ary isn’t in­ter­ested in them.

The Checkered His­tory of Mil­it­ary Brain Tam­per­ing

For a quick and his­tor­ic tour of the De­fense De­part­ment’s in­terest in brain hack­ing, start with this 1973 re­port, writ­ten forDARPA, de­tail­ing So­viet re­search in­to psy­chokin­es­is, the ma­nip­u­la­tion of mat­ter through thought, and oth­er as­pects of “paranor­mal phe­nom­ena.” This re­port be­came part of the bases for the book and film The Men Who Stare At Goats, the later of which saw the char­ac­ter of George Clooney, as an army trained “psych­ic weapon,” suc­cess­fully killing one of the un­lucky hoofed an­im­als en­tirely through the force of fo­cused will.

Then move on to this 1988 Na­tion­al Academy Press re­port on is­sues, the­or­ies and tech­niques for “En­han­cing Hu­man Per­form­ance,” which eagerly an­ti­cip­ates fu­ture su­per sol­dier mo­tor skills and con­cen­tra­tion states ac­quired through ap­plied brain sci­ence. From there, con­tin­ue to this 2009 re­port out­lining Op­por­tun­it­ies in Neur­os­cience for Fu­ture Army Ap­plic­a­tions.

Over the years, the mil­it­ary’s re­search in­to brain sci­ence has pro­duced some bizarre res­ults, such as the DARPA ” rob­or­at” a rat that had elec­trodes im­planted in­to its mo­tor cor­tex al­low­ing re­search­ers to ma­nip­u­late dir­ec­tion and move­ment.

There have also been some big hits.

Re­search­ers at San­dia Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory showed in 2012 that the hu­man brain’s elec­tric­al activ­ity could pre­dict how well an in­di­vidu­al was go­ing to per­form on a test. Ac­cord­ing to The Fu­tur­ist magazine:

The re­search­ers asked 23 people to at­tempt to mem­or­ize a list of words while un­der­go­ing brain scan­ning. The av­er­age sub­ject re­called 45% of the words on the list. The EEG data cor­rectly pre­dicted which five of the 23 sub­jects would beat the com­pet­i­tion, re­mem­ber­ing 72% of the words on av­er­age.

If you had someone learn­ing new ma­ter­i­al and you were re­cord­ing the EEG, you might be able to tell them, ‘You’re go­ing to for­get this, you should study this again,’ or tell them, ‘OK, you got it and go on to the next thing,’” chief re­search­er Laura Matzen said in a state­ment.

A pre­vi­ous pro­gram ac­tu­ally did yield some re­mark­able in­sight in­to the po­ten­tial for bet­ter sol­dier per­form­ance through fo­cused brain states. Amy Kraus, a former DARPA pro­gram man­ager, on Monday told a group at the Po­tom­ac In­sti­tute for Policy Stud­ies, the work that she presided over suc­ceeded in find­ing the secret men­tal secret that pre­ceded good marks­man­ship. “It turns out the ex­pert marks­man has a brain state,” she said, “a state that they enter be­fore they take the per­fect shot. Can I teach a novice to cre­ate this brain state? The an­swer was yes.”

She said that by re­cog­niz­ing that state, re­search­ers were able to im­prove the abil­ity of reg­u­lar people to im­prove their marks­man­ship by 100 per­cent. “These are re­cord­able, meas­ur­able, al­gortyh­m­ic­al,” Kraus said.

But ac­cord­ing to Sanc­hez, im­proved per­form­ance through changes in brain state is still not something we truly un­der­stand.

“The neuro­pro­cesses as­so­ci­ated with those ad­vanced func­tions — we don’t know what they are yet. We don’t know how all of those ad­vanced cir­cuits can pro­duce those brain func­tions. That’s why we’re at the more ba­sic level.”

The abil­ity to see the cel­lu­lar in­ter­con­nec­tions that ac­tu­ally con­trib­ute to men­tal activ­ity is far more im­port­ant to an ac­tu­al un­der­stand­ing of men­tal states — su­per and oth­er­wise — than is the abil­ity to meas­ure the elec­tro­mag­net­ic rum­blings as­so­ci­ated with those states. Sim­il­arly, a bit of know-how about an­im­al hus­bandry will tell you something about why a horse is fast or slow but not nearly as much as will ge­net­ics.

One of the most sig­ni­fic­ant near-term ap­plic­a­tions of mil­it­ary-fun­ded neur­os­cience is not the po­ten­tial to cre­ate su­per sol­diers but rather an un­der­stand­ing the ef­fects of com­bat and train­ing on ser­vice men and wo­men. “As we’re do­ing more to and with war fight­ers, how much of a bur­den can we place on them? How much risk can we ex­pect them to take over a life­time? How much med­ic­a­tion? How many devices? How much change in their be­ha­vi­or, through dir­ect ma­nip­u­la­tion of their brains?” said Jonath­an D. Moreno, Uni­versity of Pennsylvania pro­fess­or and au­thor of the book Mind Wars, at the Po­tom­ac In­sti­tute. “These are people who sign up to de­fend us. They sign up to take risks. Non­ethe­less, in the 21st cen­tury, we will have to slice that finer than we have in the past be­cause we are ask­ing them to do more for us.”

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