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The war on terrorism is taking a science-fiction plot twist with the introduction of new, and very real, gains in mind reading, mind control and human enhancement.

The drive to gain an advantage in the war on terror has yielded new breakthroughs in technology targeting the human brain as a means to protect the United States. Researchers are looking to neuroscience for ways to know what our enemies are thinking, control their cooperation and make U.S. soldiers superior.

In the past 15 to 20 years, there have been many new technologies, drugs and more sophisticated social psychological studies in the field of neuroscience, according to Jonathan Moreno, faculty member at Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society.

This emerging field in homeland defense is an area of expertise for Moreno, who has written a book on the subject — Mind Wars: Ethics, National Security and the Brain.

“Basically every conflict is associated with a new technology, and in this war on terrorism, it appears that it is neuroscience,” Moreno said. “Almost everything you can think of everyone is working on … a lot of the things people talk about are very far-fetched, but there are some things that will happen.”

These studies have considered how insights from neuroscience can be used in interrogations to detect deception and increase cooperation. Researchers are abandoning traditional polygraph tests in favor of magnetic resonance imaging, which uses radiology to scan and monitor brain waves.

“More of the brain is active when someone is fabricating than when someone is telling the truth,” Moreno said. “So if you can get them to cooperate, you could tell the difference between a truth or a lie,” making mind-reading a reality.

Mind-control may also be possible through a shot of oxytocin, a naturally occurring brain hormone that is associated with trust. “There is evidence that if you give people a shot of oxytocin, they would be more cooperative, more trusting and more compliant,” Moreno said.

Research has focused not only on how to control the brain, but also on how the brain can be used to control technology. “The imagination goes wild when you think about the implications of being able to combine a brain with a computer interface,” Moreno said. One possibility is using the brains of human soldiers to command combat drones directly, replacing men on the ground with robots controlled completely through thought.

Mind control has already proven successful for severely disabled tetraplegics — those experiencing paralysis from the neck down — through a computer chip implanted into their brain. The chip translates the brain’s electronic impulses and connects them to a computer interface, allowing the disabled to perform basic household functions like turning on the lights, locking the door or even playing a video game for fun.

The use of this technology to aid the disabled demonstrates how government research discoveries can become integrated into society. At Penn, one drug thought to have potential to make better soldiers might now be used by students as a study aid.

Provigil — a prescription drug usually prescribed to people with severe narcolepsy — can be used to help stay awake longer and more comfortably than caffeine or speed, a useful ability in combat situations and now academics. The drug may have developed a black market at Penn, Moreno said. These types of manufactured drugs have a way of entering the mainstream, he said. “LSD became part of the culture after the CIA was done with it.”

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