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Security applications of neuroscience
The Royal Society has published the report from the third of its Brain Waves modules, which is focused on the military and civil law enforcement implications of new neuroscience findings, writes Christian Jarrett. The report calls for increased awareness among scientists as to how their findings could be turned to potential military and enforcement uses. It also calls for the UK government to be more open about the research that it is funding is this area.
The module 'Neuroscience, conflict and security' was chaired by Rod Flower, Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at the William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University of London. There was psychological input from Susan Iversen, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, and BPS Fellow Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, both of whom were members of the module's working group. Professor of Experimental Psychology Barry Everitt at the University of Cambridge was a member of the review panel for the module.
The report describes how neuroscience advances can be used to enhance the performance of the military and to harm the performance of its enemies. On the side of performance-enhancement, it highlights the potential for neuroimaging to improve recruitment; for brain - machine interfaces to enhance sensory performance and to help with rehabilitation from injury; and for drugs to overcome fatigue and help with recovery from PTSD. In relation to degrading enemy performance, the report describes work on the use of chemical agents designed to affect the central nervous system, and the development of non-lethal high-energy laser weapons designed to interfere with neurotransmitter release and other physiological functions.
A substantial section of the report deals with the treaties related to the ban of the use of biological and chemical weapons, to which the UK is a signatory - The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. The latter includes an ambiguous exception allowing for 'law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes'. The report says there is an urgent need for the UK government to clarify its position in relation to this exception, in particular whether it applies to incapacitating chemical agents and not only to riot control agents, which have a less drastic, irritant effect. cj
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