The brain is on the verge of becoming the next battlefield with weapons
currently being designed to hack directly into your nervous system.
"Controlled Personnel Effects"
(see image, right) is one of the Air Force’s ambitious long-term
challenges. It starts with better and more accurate bombs, but moves on
to discuss devices that "make selected adversaries think or act
according to our needs… By studying and modeling the human brain and
nervous system, the ability to mentally influence or confuse personnel
is also possible."
first stage is technology to “remotely create physical sensations.”
They give the example of the Active Denial System "people zapper" which
uses a high-frequency radiation similar to microwaves as a non-lethal
means of crowd control.
Other weapons can affect the nervous system directly. The Pulsed Energy Projectile
fires a short intense pulse of laser energy. This vaporizes the outer
layer of the target, creating a rapidly-expanding expanding ball of
plasma. At different power levels, those expanding plasmas could
deliver a harmless warning, stun the target, or disable them – all with
pinpoint laser precision from a mile away.
Early reports on the effects of PEPs
mentioned temporary paralysis, then thought to be related to ultrasonic
shockwaves. It later became apparent that the electromagnetic pulse
caused by the expanding plasma was triggering nerve cells.
Details of this emerged in a heavily-censored document released to Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project
under the Freedom if Information Act. Called “Sensory consequence of
electromagnetic pulsed emitted by laser induced plasmas,” it described
research on activating the nerve cells responsible for sensing
unpleasant stimuli: heat, damage, pressure, cold. By selectively
stimulating a particular nociceptor, a finely tuned PEP might
sensations of say, being burned, frozen or dipped in acid — all
without doing the slightest actual harm.
The skin is the easiest target for such stimulation. But, in
principle, any sensory nerves could be triggered. The Controlled
Effects document suggests “it may be possible to create synthetic
images…to confuse an individual’ s visual sense or, in a similar
manner, confuse his senses of sound, taste, touch, or smell.”
In other words, it may be possible to use electromagnetic means to
create overwhelming ‘sound’ or ‘light’, or indeed ‘intolerable smell’
which would exist only in the brain of the person perceiving them.
There is another side as well. The “sensory consequences” document
also notes that the nervous system which controls muscles could be
influenced to cause what they call “Taser-like motor effects.” The stun
gun’s ability to shock the muscles into malfunction is relatively
crude; we might now be looking at are much more targeted effects.
The American military may want to attack the nervous system,
with pain rays and laser plasma pulses. But they’re not the only ones.
The Russians have long studied such systems, too — including one
weapon that could, in theory, remotely trigger heart attacks.
In 2003, at the 2nd European Symposium on Non-Lethal Weapons,
Anatoly Korolev and his colleagues from Moscow State University
presented a paper with the snappy title "Bioelectrodynamic Criterion of
the NLW Effectiveness Estimation and the Interaction mechanisms of the
multilayer Skin Tissues with electromagnetic Radiation." This is a
study of how radio-frequency weapons — like the American Active Denial System
– affect the skin. After wading through a mass of technical data
showing how complex the interactions are we reach the punch line:
The sensations modality (pricking, touch, pressure,
gooseflesh, touch, burning pain etc) depends on the field parameters
and individual concrete human being factors. As a matter of fact, we
can really choose the non-lethal bioeffect.
The effects include sensations similar to those discussed previously,
and more besides. The paper discusses effects on cell membranes and
affecting the body’s normal function, including "information transfer
to the organs of control."
At the same conference,
V Makukhin of the Trymas Engineering Center in Moscow described
"Electronic equipment for complex influence on biological objects." And
when he says "biological objects," he means you and me.
His laboratory apparatus uses a modulated beam of radio waves to
produce what he terms "disorder of autonomic nervous system," put
forward as a possible non-lethal weapon. Makhunin notes that there is
no general agreement on how EM waves disrupt nerves – he mentions ion
channels similar to those in the plasma paper – but he certainly seems
to be seeing the same effects as American researchers.
But it need not be a non-lethal weapon. Makhunin also mentions the
effects of "change of electrocardiogram" and what he calls "function
break of heart muscle."
The vulnerability of the heart to electrical stimulation (including that produced by EM waves) is well documented.
A lethal device would interfere with the electrical potentials that
keep the chambers of the heart synchronized, producing fibrillation and
rapid death. A death ray doesn’t need to be a truck-sized laser that
reduces the target to smoking heap; a small device that stops the heart
will do the job.
Little has been openly published in this area in the public domain,
but this may be the tip of the iceberg. We are likely to be hearing
more in future – especially if the Russians manage to find funding.
I don’t think we need tinfoil hats just yet. But a layer of
conducting mesh built into body armor might save a lot of heartache in
years to come.