In a report reminiscent of science fiction, U.S. Air Force scientists said this week that sending electric pulses to soldier’s brains is an effective technique to improve attention span and cognitive ability.
The as-yet unregulated technology may be used on drone operators, whose role in the United States’ secret assassination program leaves them with some of the military’s highest rates of burn-out. In 2015, so many operators quit that the U.S. Air Force was forced to curtail its number of drone flights.
While the U.S. military has been using pharmaceutical stimulants such as modafinil (Provigil) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) to enhance drone operators’ performance, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have found that Ritalin [is] as addictive as cocaine, and [that] modafinil can permanently damage sleep patterns, as [it] is also very addictive,” reports the International Business Times.
The military hopes that electronically zapping soldiers’ brains will be a safer alternative.
“But while electrical brain stimulation appears to have no harmful side effects, some experts say its long-term safety is unknown, and raise concerns about staff being forced to use the equipment if it is approved for military operations,” the Guardian writes. “Others are worried about the broader implications of the science on the general workforce because of the advance of an unregulated technology.”
And European researchers who studied the brain-zapping technique years ago warned that the technology is in fact extremely invasive, as its effects tend to “spread from the target brain area to neighboring areas.”
In their 2013 paper, those scientists argued: “Any technique which directly affects brain tissue to generate such powerful acute and long-lasting effects should be treated with the same respect as any surgical technique, and proper safety and ethical guidelines should apply in institutions where brain stimulation is in use.”
“I have more serious worries about the extent to which participants can give informed consent, and whether they can opt out once it is approved for use,” Neil Levy, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, told the Guardian. “Even for those jobs where attention is absolutely critical, you want to be very careful about making it compulsory, or there being a strong social pressure to use it, before we are really sure about its long-term safety.”
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Nika Knight is a Common Dreams staff writer.