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Use and misuse of neuroscience in the development and deployment of chemical and biochemical weapons: action required at national and international level

London, UK: As the third review conference of the State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention meets in The Hague this week, the expert who chaired the Royal Society 2012 report on “Neuroscience, conflict and security” is calling on CWC members to re-assess the definition and status of incapacitating agents. [1]

Professor Rod Flower told the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience (BNA2013) at the Barbican in London (UK) on Wednesday 10 April that developments in neuroscience are making it possible to manipulate neurological function for therapeutic purposes such as anaesthetics and painkillers. However, it is also becoming feasible to develop sophisticated weapons delivering chemicals and biochemicals capable of incapacitating people, either in the context of war or law enforcement.

Incapacitating chemical agents are substances that are intended to cause prolonged but transient disability and produce effects such as loss of consciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, paralysis and disorientation. Although they are designed to have a temporary effect, they can also result in death because of the difficulty of delivering a dose appropriate for the people they are being used against.

“The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, including those that cause temporary incapacitation,” says Prof Flower, of the Centre for Biochemical Pharmacology at Queen Mary, University of London (UK). “But there are exemptions which allow their development and use for law enforcement, including domestic riot control purposes. This raises a number of ethical, legal and humanitarian issues.”

On the one hand, agents such as tear gas can be useful tools in controlling riots and can actually save lives as tear gas can be deployed instead of rubber bullets, for instance. On the other hand, he points to the example of the Moscow theatre siege in which Chechen rebels took nearly 1,000 hostages; the Russian security services pumped the theatre full of sleeping gas containing the compound fentanyl before storming the building and 130 hostages died, mostly as a result of the gas.

Furthermore, it would be possible for chemical agents held for domestic riot control reasons, to be used in war situations.

“So the CWC meeting needs to consider the issue of what is an incapacitating agent and how these agents should be limited,” says Prof Flower. “At present, a loophole exists and the CWC needs to consider what this loophole allows through. For instance, the Russians said that keeping and using the sleeping gas was permitted as it was an anaesthetic gas with therapeutic applications.”

Prof Flower said that the CWC and the signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) should be considering how to improve their coordination. “Developments in biology and chemistry have made it increasingly difficult to differentiate between what is a chemical weapon and what is a biochemical weapon, because both biology and chemistry can be used to manufacture them. The Conventions were set up for different reasons, but this increasing convergence between the two disciplines means that certain weapons may be covered by both Conventions and the overlap needs to be addressed.

“Neuroscience should be a focus of the BWC considerations because of the potentials for its misuse in the development of incapacitating weapons. There have been some dramatic advances in the science, for instance with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), that allow us to see in unprecedented detail what is going on in the brain and identify potential targets for intervention.”

Prof Flower says “neural interface systems” – for instance, where electrodes are attached to the head in order to monitor and communicate with the brain’s neural networks – are attracting a lot of interest at present. Examples of how increased knowledge in this area can be put to use in both civilian and military contexts include:

– improving the function of prosthetic limbs, for instance to rehabilitate injured soldiers

– treating post traumatic stress syndrome

– controlling battlefield operations and enabling rapid decision making, e.g. using information that reaches the brain before a person is even conscious of it, which could make them quicker at pulling the trigger or spotting differences in, for instance, nearly identical maps that could indicate the presence of newly deployed rocket launchers

–other concerns focus on the uses of MRI, electroencephalogram (EEG) and other recording devices as potential interrogation techniques and transcranial direct current stimulation to modify thoughts or behaviour.

“Many of these applications have useful civilian purposes,” said Prof Flower. “For example, improving the ability of people reading hundreds of mammograms every day to spot differences that could be cancer, would reduce the numbers of undetected cancers. However, we need to be aware that there is a flip side, and these advances could be abused as well. There are serious ethical issues here that need to be considered, and there are currently no treaties that regulate the military development and use of many of these sorts of technologies.”

He told the meeting that governments, universities, medical associations and other professional associations should ensure that an understanding of the dual use of these technologies and the ethics involved is part of the training of people entering the medical sciences and neurosciences in particular. “At the moment, the teaching of ethics in this area is patchy. Neuroscientists need to be made more aware at an early stage in their training that the knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes and could violate human rights and international law.”


Abstract title: “Neuroscience, conflict and security”. Workshop: “Neuroscience and society: opportunities, challenges and policy”, at 14.00 hrs BST on Wednesday 10 April, Frobisher Room 4.

[1] The Third Review conference of the State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention takes place between April 8-19 at The Hague (The Netherlands).

[2] The Royal Society report, “Brain Waves Module 3: Neuroscience, conflict and security” can be accessed at: http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/brain-waves/conflict-security/

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