IN 28 NOVEMBER 1953, a US biochemist called Frank Olson fell to his death from the window of a New York hotel. The verdict was suicide. Twenty years later, the secretive CIA project called MKULTRA was officially halted. During US government investigations, the CIA admitted having given Olson the mind-altering drug LSD , shortly before he died. His family, who received a settlement in 1976, allege to this day that he was murdered to prevent him going public with details of his research in biological warfare and the military use of LSD.
Olson was not MKULTRA’s only guinea pig. Yet because most of the project’s documents were destroyed, we may never know how many people – including the mentally ill and terminal cancer patients – were experimented on without their knowledge and consent. The project was set up to pursue an ancient fantasy: controlling people’s minds. Now, 40 years after it was stopped, research into mind control is more advanced than ever.
Progress in computing power, genetics and neuroimaging have created new technologies for manipulating brains with unprecedented precision. And these days the aim is not to control the minds of captive soldiers or manipulate the thinking of Soviet bloc leaders. These days, mind control is aimed a little closer to home.
Techniques for controlling the human brain could treat mental afflictions ranging from addiction to obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. And while the military aims haven’t disappeared, today the dream is of developing super soldiers who are not crippled by fear in life and death situations, can make brilliant tactical decisions when running on two hours’ sleep a night and could even know the directions to the next rendezvous point in deepest Afghanistan without a map – the route being fed directly to their brains.
As well as the targets, the techniques of mind control have changed – as have the ethics. Out go the secrets and covert experimentation: much of today’s research is announced via press release, or reported on blogs and official websites.
ILLUMINATING THE BRAIN
Among the most promising of new mind control techniques is optogenetics. Brain cells, or neurones, are made to respond to light by the insertion of light-sensitive genes derived from microbes. Pulses of light – perhaps delivered through a fibre-optic wire – can then be used to control neural circuits, without any of the tissue damage caused by implanted electrodes or the negative side effects of drugs.
The beginnings of research into optogenetics have been fairly humble, with research subjects being the likes of microscopic worms, fruit flies and mice. But last year, a team of biologists took a step closer to humans, using optogenetics to change monkeys’ eye movements.
“There are already some groups working on optogenetic applications in humans,” says Dr Wim Vanduffel, of the University of Leuven and Harvard Medical School, who led the research on monkeys.
Other research on animals gives a small insight into the potential of optogenetics. Neuroscientists led by Dr Karl Deisseroth, Professor of Bioengineering and Psychiatry at Stanford University, turned mice – known for being highly-strung creatures – into bold explorers. A flashing blue light was shone on a specific circuit in their amygdalas using implanted optical fibres – the amygdala being a brain region involved with processing emotions.
But mucking about with genes in humans is ethically provocative – we don’t even like GM food, let alone GM people. Besides, visible light can’t penetrate the skull, so in many species optogenetics requires the skull to be opened. So at least in the short term, this technique is likely to remain the preserve of research, helping to pinpoint which neural circuits are behind which disease.
That said, could optogenetics actually be used to control the human brain and meddle with someone’s personality?
“Well, of course this would be completely unethical, but I’m convinced it’s highly doable,” says Vanduffel. “Once we have a better understanding of the neural circuits involved you can artificially alter the activity of the neurones and change the behaviour and actions of people. To some extent this is already being done with deep brain stimulation.”
In deep brain stimulation (DBS), metal electrodes are implanted inside the brain to retrain circuits using electrical impulses. It’s already being used to treat patients with conditions ranging from chronic pain to Parkinson’s disease. “DBS seems to be able to reprogram faulty brain networks,” says Dr John Stein, Emeritus Professor at the University of Oxford. But the underlying mechanisms are still not clear.
Brain stimulation can even be used to extend existing senses. Dr Miguel Nicolelis and his team at Duke University in the US have devised a way to give mice the ability to sense infrared light. The rodents were fitted with electrodes linked up with the brain region that processes tactile signals received by the whiskers. At the other end of the electrodes was an infrared sensor. When exposed to infrared, the electrode sent a signal to their brains – in effect the mice were given the ability to ‘touch’ infrared light. “There seems no reason that these animals in the future could not be given full-fledged infrared vision,” says Nicolelis. And there seems no reason why similar prostheses could not add senses to the human repertoire – perhaps the ability to ‘taste’ radio waves or ‘smell’ infrared light.
Nicolelis is also behind research, published earlier this year, in which rats with electrodes implanted in their brains were able to communicate with each other through brain signals, even though they were thousands of miles apart. One rat at Duke University, USA transmitted information to another at the University of Natal, Brazil about which switch to press to get a reward. Nicolelis, whose research is funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), foresees a time when many connected brains could be similarly linked to think through a problem.
“In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves,” he says.
Both optogenetics and DBS are pretty invasive – requiring wires to be implanted in the brain. But what if the brain could be controlled without the need for implants? Biomedical engineer Dr William Tyler at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in the US is investigating the use of pulses of ultrasound that can travel through the skull into the brain to stimulate circuits.
Ultrasound is most commonly associated with medical scans, but if the frequency and intensity of the sound waves are tweaked it can stimulate specific brain regions. It does this with an accuracy comparable to DBS – the waves can be focused on an area of 1 to 3 cubic millimetres. The dream is to be able to use ultrasound to treat conditions such as depression and epilepsy or even boost working memory and creativity.
In the long term, the ultrasound research could even lead to ballistic helmets for soldiers that provide navigational commands, improve longterm alertness and reduce anxiety.
MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN
But the effectiveness of any mind control technique depends on knowing exactly which brain regions to stimulate to produce the desired effect – and our map of brain function is still decidedly foggy. Some neuroscientists believe this could be a major stumbling block in years to come. “We simply don’t know enough about the neural basis of most human behaviour, motivations or beliefs to make targeted interventions yet,” says Gero Miesenböck, Professor of Physiology and Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford.
As We went to press, the Obama administration was expected to announce a decade-long research project aimed at building a comprehensive map of the brain’s activity that ties actions and thoughts to specific brain regions. The Brain Activity Mapping Project is the brain equivalent of the Human Genome Project and is expected to cost more than USD 300 million per year over 10 years.
Before neuroscientists start their cerebral cartography, they need to develop the tools required for probing our minds. Designing tiny sensors able to enter neurones and record their activity will be central to the project’s success. Despite the hurdles, the pay-offs could be huge. “The more we know about how the brain functions, the more efficient the development and design of possible therapies will be,” says Vanduffel.
But as our knowledge of the activity of the brain grows and our techniques of mind control become ever more sophisticated, even a person’s deepest convictions will become susceptible to the tools of brain manipulation. In the hands of a state with a cause to propagate, this could be a dangerous weapon. MKULTRA may be dead, but the age of mind control could be just about to begin.