Lois Rogers

Journalist and Communicator

No stress, no fear, no panic: it´s Supersoldier

Science

The Sunday Times Published: 04 December 2011. Lois Rogers.

Critics raise medical and ethical arguments against the US military’s plans to use drugs in an attempt to block soldiers’ feelings of fear on the battlefield

Scientists are working to create a fearless “supersoldier” using smart drugs that would prevent them from panicking under pressure or being paralysed by terror.

Using brain-imaging technology, researchers working for the American military will shortly begin clinical trials with existing licensed drugs in the hope of finding a compound that blocks the proteins in the brain that cause fear.

Critics are, however, already voicing concern about the potential medical and ethical risks, including the threat of creating psychotic military personnel devoid of empathy or guilt.

But Colonel Christian Macedonia, who is leading the “enabling stress resistance” project on behalf of the Pentagon´s defence research advanced projects agency (Darpa), said the programme could make soldiers safer on the battlefield as well as less prone to drink and drug abuse and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder off it.

He said: “If you´re worried about a drug that might blunt emotional responses and be abused, we already have one known as alcohol.

“We would prefer that people gain better control of stress as a means of living with the full range of emotions without the harmful effects [alcohol] can have on the mind and body.”

Darpa refused to reveal which drugs have been selected for the forthcoming trial but the use of existing products will avoid the need to conduct clinical trials and win approval for new compounds, a process that can take up to 15 years.

Researchers believe they will eventually be able to provide customised treatment for each individual soldier and reduce fear without dulling other senses, a problem associated with previous programmes.

Drugs have long been used to try to enhance the performance of soldiers and reduce post-traumatic stress. Many Vietnam war veterans, for example, were prescribed Prazosin, a drug to reduce blood pressure, when scientists discovered by chance that it helped to reduce the number of nightmares and flashbacks.

America is now investing more than £250m a year in research into biologically enhancing its military.

Such work is currently being considered by the Brain Waves project, an expert committee convened by the Royal Society in London, which will next month publish a report making recommendations about the legal, ethical and human rights implications of using neuroscience to gain a military advantage.

Steven Rose, emeritus professor of life sciences at the Open University and a member of the working party, said: “This work is eerie and nasty. The idea that you can mess around with people´s minds in this way is far-fetched and dubious, but there is a chance some of these projects will come to fruition and we have to take them seriously.”

Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist at King´s College centre for military health research in London and an adviser to the Ministry of Defence, said: “There would be ethical issues if we really could block traumatic memories, so people don´t feel bad about what they have done.”

Written by Lois Rogers