Neuroweapons: New Type of Non-Lethal Weapons Raises Troubling Ethical Questions

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience point in the direction that the human brain can be completely decoded, that memories could be suppressed, deleted or artificially implanted, that auditory and visual hallucinations could be induced, that mental capacity could be degraded or enhanced, that behavior could be accurately predicted or controlled, and that two-way brain-computer interfaces could allow people to control machines by thought and connect their minds directly to computer networks to receive information. In short, we are heading towards a future where mind reading and mind control will become a social reality. Many neuroscientists and bioethicists are already very concerned about the development of so-called ‘neuroweapons’ and the broader societal use of technology for monitoring brain processes and for manipulating brain processes through pharmaceuticals that target particular brain areas or affect specific brain functions and behaviors and through electromagnetic stimulation like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) or transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The bioethicist Jonathan Moreno was one of the first academics to raise the public awareness of neuroweapons through his 2006 book Mind Wars: Brian Science and the Military in the 21st Century.1 The Royal Sciety also released a report that outlined some of the military applications of neuroscience in 2012 with the title Brain Waves Module 3: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security.2 Below are some of the methods and future applications that are discussed in the literature:

Neurodrugs:      Pharmaceuticals that can be precisely delivered to specific brain areas or that can have very specific effects on the minds and behavior of people. Currently the military is primarily interested in neurodrugs for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as a large percentage of active-duty personnel and veterans are affected by it due to the heavy demands caused by more than a decade of continuous combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This not only massively impacts on the overall combat readiness and effectiveness of US forces, but it also represents a rarely visible human cost and a societal tragedy, as many veterans are unable to get or hold jobs due to PTSD and as many of them commit suicide at a rate of 22 a day.3 An approach taken by Roger Pitman from Harvard University is to delete traumatic memory with the so-called ‘beta-blocker’ propranolol.4 The drug prevents a traumatic memory from solidifying and thus reoccurring to cause stress on a patient. Besides propranolol, there might be other drugs using different chemical mechanisms for the creation and suppression of memory. Apart from the merely therapeutic potentials of neurodrugs one can also imagine applications for the enhancement of mental capabilities, although this is more speculative. One particularly desired aspect of pharmaceutical performance enhancement by the military is the reduction of soldiers’ need for sleep without a decline in mental ability. There are various drugs for gaining a ‘sleep superiority’ over the enemy. The armed forces of many states have given soldiers amphetamines to stay awake longer, have less fear, and to support their physical strength and endurance since at least the Second World War. Fighter pilots are sometimes prescribed the amphetamine Dexedrine to overcome fatigue. Since 1998 there is also the vigilance supporting drug modafinil, which is being evaluated as a performance enhancing drug by many armed forces around the world.5 Modafinil is the only known drug that increases wakefulness instead of just suppressing tiredness. It is also being used against fatigue, jetlag, and addiction. Other neurodrugs might be used for manipulating the behavior of the enemy or for degrading the enemy’s mental abilities. One of the most promising drugs in this respect is oxytocin, which is a pheromone that can increase trust in people and which is already being marketed as an aphrodisiac with the name ‘liquid trust’. The US military apparently considered developing a ‘gay bomb’ that releases pheromones on enemy forces and subverts them by inducing sexual desires.6 Of course, such a bomb could be also used for supporting traditional psyops aimed at manipulating enemy forces into surrendering. In addition, there are well-known methods for incapacitating enemy forces such as sleep gases and hallucinogens such as BZ, 3-methylfentanyl, and LSD, which can confuse and disorient enemies or make them unconscious. There is even a known ‘zombie-drug’ that can take away the free will of people by robbing them of their ability to think critically. It is the alkaloid scopolamine, which had been already investigated as a potential truth drug by the CIA back in the late 1940s. Scopolamine is known in Latin America under the street name ‘burundanga’ and it is generally used for robberies and ‘date rape’ since it not only makes people extremely open to suggestions, but also results in memory loss, which makes it hard to identify the perpetrators.7 It is foreseeable that with the growing knowledge of the biochemistry in the brain and ever better methods of precise drug delivery even fancier neurodrugs can be developed for deleting memories, for controlling and enhancing mental states and abilities, and for manipulating behavior.

Brain stimulation:            While the focus of debates on neuroweapons is still on pharmaceuticals, there are also various methods of brain stimulation under development that generally aim at enhancing cognitive and mental abilities of soldiers and other personnel. Since the early 1980s TMS is being used therapeutically for treating depression, stroke, migraine, and Parkinson’s disease and it is based on the production of very strong electrical fields near the brain to electromagnetically stimulate specific regions of the brain.8 TMS is already being used for the treatment of PTSD and it could be used for performance enhancement in the future. Many effects that can be produced by drugs can also be produced through electromagnetic brain stimulation. For example, it is possible to alter mental states, to suppress pain, affect memory, enhance concentration and possibly mental ability. While TMS requires large and expensive machinery tDCS is much cheaper and easier to use, which could make it attractive for a broader societal use. The brain is stimulated by electrical impulses applied directly to the skull and it can also do some of the things that TMS is credited of being capable of. For example, a study from Oxford University claims that tDCS can significantly improve mathematical abilities of students.9 There is even a commercial gaming device called Focus that claims to improve the concentration of gamers and to allow them to remain concentrated for longer periods of time.10 The US military considers integrating some sort of brain stimulation machine in the helmets of soldiers, in order to keep them awake and concentrated longer. William Tyler from the Arizona State University has a DARPA contract to build a transcranial pulsed ultrasound device that would be small enough to fit into a combat helmet. The device could immediately relieve soldiers of pain if they are wounded or stimulate their brains when they are about to fall asleep.11 More problematic, however, are invasive methods for brain stimulation that require to surgically implant devices or electrodes in the heads of people. Recently DARPA awarded $70 million for the development of implantable chips for deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat PTSD and depression.12 Not only are brain implants medically more risky since they could damage brain tissue or have other irreversible effects, they also open the possibility of directly controlling the behavior of people, for example by stimulating the motor cortex that controls the motor system and thus our movements. Methods of brain stimulation could also be used for degrading the mental abilities and mental states of adversaries. Through targeted electromagnetic stimulation of specific brain regions it might be possible to cripple the ability for rational thought, to induce auditory or visual hallucinations, to alter moods (e.g. induce fear or anxiety), or to induce a hypnotic state or sleep.13

Brain-Computer Interfaces:         Another way of enhancing the performance of soldiers is the development of brain-computer interfaces, which could ultimately lead to applications such as thought-controlled weaponry and ‘synthetic telepathy’. DARPA works on a system that monitors brain activity in order to flag threats to the owner of the brain before they even enter the consciousness. The system is called Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System and it is based on a simple EEG attached to a computer and software that can interpret the brain waves.14 The test subject is looking at a monitor that shows a live battlefield. When the test subject subconsciously notices a threat it can be picked up by the brain monitoring system and the operator can be alerted to it, which can cut down the effective response time by several seconds. In the future the technology could be used for enabling soldiers to control weapons by their minds: brain processes could be interpreted as decisions without the need that the owner of the brain would have to take any conscious decision or action to take aim at a threat or to trigger a weapon. This would further cut down effective response times and take advantage of the human brain as an unmatched pattern recognition machine that is still superior to even the fastest computers. Brain-computer interfaces could eventually lead to actual mind reading that allows to accurately determine what a person is thinking, perceiving, imagining, or dreaming. This is far less fantastic as it sounds since researchers are already trying to develop a catalogue of brain response patterns to specific stimuli. So if a brain shows a specific response one can guess what the stimulus may have been. This way it might be possible to decode thoughts by matching them to specific EEG responses. Specific words that are thought could be encoded in specific brain waves, which means that by accurately measuring and recording brain waves one could potentially gain knowledge of a person’s thought processes. It is also imaginable that thoughts, perceptions, or emotions could be recorded and played back to the person or another individual. In the end, deciphering the brain could all be just a matter of sufficient computing power and sufficient time and effort. Once the brain is decoded in this manner, which could happen in less than 20 years according to neuroscientist Mike D’Zuma from the University of California, Irvine, one could create ‘synthetic telepathy’, enabling people to communicate with computers and other people directly by thought.15 Obviously, the ability to read people’s minds could be a handy interrogation tool, as it could force them to reveal secrets that they would not otherwise reveal. Until real mind reading has been realized there is an existing method for checking whether a person remembers a particular stimulus such as an object on a photograph. The method is called ‘brain fingerprinting’ and was developed by Lawrence Farewell. It uses an EEG to detect a P-300 wave that is produced by the brain when it retrieves a specific memory.16 For the moment it could be used as a biometric identification tool that can be used to grant people access to buildings or to start a car, but it could also be used for supporting interrogations.

The Reasons for Concern

Governments have been researching so-called ‘neuroweapons’ for decades almost in complete secrecy and the public has little knowledge of the capabilities in this area that may already exist or could exist relatively soon. This lack of public knowledge and government accountability has up to now prevented any serious debate about the ethical and legal implications of the use of neuroweapons, both in a warfare and law enforcement context. Neuroweapons fall into the category of so-called ‘non-lethal weapons’ such as rubber bullets, Tasers, tear gas, pepper spray etc. Nonlethal weapons have proliferated to law enforcement agencies and are now routinely used for policing. Critics have pointed out that they are also not sufficiently regulated and that they could be used as ‘compliance tools’ and for deniable torture. It is clear that neuroweapons could be ideal instruments for political repression, as they could be used to identify and ‘neutralize’ political dissidents in a covert manner, while also potentially depriving soldiers and other government personnel implanted with brain chips of their free will. Their possible proliferation to criminals and criminal syndicates a very real threat to the security of society, which could be compounded by insufficient awareness on part of the public and law enforcement of the problem. Therefore the usage of neuroweapons should be very tightly regulated. A primary issue is that neuroweapons could violate human dignity and would pose an unprecedented threat to individual privacy. While it might look more humanitarian to manipulate the brains of enemies instead of blowing them up, the technology could also be used to subject humans to a fate that is worse than death – the rape of their mind and the destruction of their identity, personality, and soul. It is high time to include neuroweapons in arms control treaties such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and to severely restrict the circumstances and the manner in which these weapons can be used.


  1. Jonathan Moreno (2006), Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century, New York: Bellevue Literary Press.
  2. The Royal Society (2012), Brain Waves Module 3: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security, London: Society Policy Centre (February).
  3. Moni Basu (2013), “Why Suicide Rate Amongst Veterans May Be More Than 22 a Day”, CNN (14 November),
  4. Robert Lavine (2012), “Ending the Nightmares: How Drug Treatment Could Finally Stop PTSD”, The Atlantic (1 February),
  5. William Saletan (2013), “The War on Sleep: There’s a Military Arms Race to Build Soldiers Who Can Fight Without Fatigue”, Slate (29 May),
  6. (2005), “America’s Military Pondered Love Not War”, BBC News (15 January),
  7. Beth Stebner (2012), „The Most Dangerous Drug of the World: ‚Devil’s Breath‘ from Colombia Can Block Free Will, Wipe Memory and Even Kill‘, Daily Mail Online (12 May),
  8. Robert H. Blank (2013), Intervention in the Brain: Politics, Policy, and Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 30.
  9. Steve Connor (2010), ‘Electrical Brain Zap “Boosts Math Ability” ’, The Independent (4 November),
  10. See company website:
  11. Clay Dillow (2010), “DARPA Wants to Install Ultrasound Mind Control Devices in Soldiers’ Helmets”, Popular Science (9 September),
  12. James Gorman (2013), “Agency Initiative Will Focus on Advancing Deep Brain Stimulation”, The New York Times (24 October),
  13. Robert Becker (1990), Cross-Currents: The Perils of Electropollution, the Promise of Electromedicine, New York: Jeremy Tarcher/ Penguin, pp. 104-106.
  14. Sebastian Anthony (2012), “DARPA Combines Human Brains and 120 Megapixel Cameras to Create the Ultimate Military Threat Detection System”, ExtremeTech (19 September),
  15. Eric Bland (2008), ‘Army Developing “Synthetic Telepathy” ’, NBC News (13 October),
  16. Lawrence A. Farewell, Drew C. Richardson & Graham M. Richardson (2013), “Brain Finger Printing Field Studies Comparing P-300 MERMER and P-300 Brain Wave Responses in the Detection of Concealed Information”, Cognitive Neurodynamics 7, pp. 263-299.

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