Study shows how neuroscience could assist soldiers in future

Future soldiers could control weapons and vehicles with their minds and use brain-stimulation techniques to improve their skills, according to the Royal Society.

A report from the UK’s academy of sciences into the role neuroscience could play in the military has highlighted how drugs and technology could be used to enhance the capabilities of troops or to weaken the enemy.

The study, which used research from a number of countries, also pointed to neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain activity sensing, which could be used to help improve training methods — or even predict people’s thoughts or mental states.

Brain stimulation using weak electrical currents passed through the skull — known as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) — could, in particular, be used to improve a soldier’s ability to spot camouflaged objects.

‘This is an ability that can be fostered by dedicated training, but this is costly in terms of time and resources and it is therefore in the interest of the military to develop methods that can accelerate acquisition of this skill,’ said the report.

For this technique to work, scientists need to know which neural system in the brain to target in order to affect the right behaviour — and imaging techniques such as fMRI and MEG could provide the solution.

The report highlighted recent research by New Mexico University in the US that identified the neural circuits used in locating hidden targets in a virtual-reality environment.

It said: ‘tDCS of these areas during training resulted in a two-fold increase in learning and performance relative to a sham control in which the device was attached but only with a negligible amount of current. Interestingly, the effect was still present one hour after the training phase.’

Using electrode arrays implanted in the nervous system could give soldiers greater control over weapons and vehicles or enable them to operate robots or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with their minds from miles away.

‘Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware of, a neurally interfaced weapon systems could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy,’ said the report.

This technology could also be used for sensory enhancement, allowing soldiers to feel the heat and distance of an object in a room using a small magnetic implant on the fingertip that vibrates according to signals from an external sensor.

‘In this way, a sonar sensor or an infrared sensor can be used to operate with the magnet — hence the recipient “feels” how far away an object is or remotely “feels” how hot an object is,’ the report continued.

‘Unobtrusive neural interfaces such as these sensory implants might provide an edge to the law-enforcement fields in small but tangible ways.’

On the concept of using brain imaging to predict people’s thoughts for interrogation purposes, the report noted ‘the possibility of decoding someone’s intentions, aims and strategies and whether or not they are being deceptive’.

However, according to the report, the science is still in its infancy. ‘There are very limited prospects for a universal thought-reading machine. The technology is not advanced enough to distinguish the subtle differences between the vast numbers of brain states.’

The Ministry of Defence has recently launched a PhD scheme that includes research into some of these areas, including fieldable techniques for neurological imaging and bio-electronics integration.