Scientific American Mind - November 29, 2006 Juicing the Brain Research to limit mental fatigue among soldiers may foster controversial ways to enhance any person's brain By Jonathan D. Moreno Physicians have long tinkered with ways to "improve" the human brain, but as our understanding of that organ's inner workings quickly grows, artificial enhancement is becoming more feasible. Military research is at the forefront of this work, much of it focused on drugs. The goal is to produce a better soldier, but the emerging techniques could just as easily be applied to any individual. The military wants to juice up personnel's brains because the human being is the weakest instrument of warfare. Although for centuries astonishing and terrifying advances have been made in the technology of conflict, soldiers are basically the same. They must eat, sleep, discern friend from foe, heal when wounded, and so forth. The first state (or nonstate) actor to build superior fighters will make an enormous leap in the arms race. In the short run, researchers are trying to devise aids that would overcome a person's inherent limitations, such as mental fatigue. Long-term results could lead to individuals everywhere who are tireless, less fearful or even better speakers. Sleepless in Battle Reducing human error caused by mental fatigue is crucial because death by "friendly fire" is a shockingly frequent occurrence. These tragic mistakes can partly be attributed to the sleep deprivation that accompanies lengthy deployments. An investigation into a 2002 incident in which two American pilots accidentally killed four Canadian soldiers and injured eight others in Afghanistan provided an unexpected glimpse into the U.S. Air Force's interest in sleep. Unnoticed by many, the pilots' attorneys in the resulting court-martial cases pointed out that their clients had been taking Dexedrine, sometimes called the go pill, otherwise known as speed. It was alleged that amphetamines such as Dexedrine are commonly prescribed to keep pilots alert for 30-hour missions, even though questions have been raised about safety. Use of such drugs can also lead to dependency. The air force is considering alternatives to amphetamines, in particular a medication that has also gained the attention of long-distance business travelers: modafinil. Marketed as Provigil, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 to treat narcolepsy and to help control sleep disorders associated with diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis. Modafinil is not a traditional stimulant; rather than bombarding various parts of the brain with arousal signals, it apparently nudges the brain toward wakefulness through specific pathways, perhaps by increasing serotonin levels in the brain stem. The precise mechanism is still not well understood.
The temptation for healthy people to use such a drug is tremendous; some individuals report that a dose leaves them as refreshed as a short nap. Frequent fliers already get prescriptions for the
- Spring '08