Mind control: More than just a plot point?

Psychosurgery. Brain implants. Mind control. The stuff of movies — as in The Manchurian Candidate, which opens Friday — or a glimpse of the future?

Maybe both, says neurologist Jay Lombard of the Brain Behavior Center in Nyack, N.Y., who was science adviser for the film.

The political thriller stars Denzel Washington as Maj. Bennett Marco, a Gulf War veteran who is tormented by dreams that suggest he was surgically brainwashed during the war. When a sergeant from his unit emerges years later as a candidate for vice president, Marco attempts to find out the truth about his dreams and the candidate.

“If you look at where things are heading in neuroscience,” Lombard says, “it’s not that far a stretch.”

The future of neuroscience is under study this year by the President’s Council on Bioethics. Opponents of “neuromarketing,” the study of consumer choice using brain scans, have raised alarms about the possibility of the advertising industry using science to sell people unneeded or harmful products.

“We have capabilities we never had before,” says neuroethicist Judy Illes of Stanford University. For example, imaging studies are now examining judgment and emotion in the brain, she says, and brain chip implants are treating Parkinson’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In The Manchurian Candidate, implants are inserted in the brain’s pleasure centers. Lombard says the concept comes from a 2002 study of “robo-rats” that were given brain implants. Scientists learned to “steer” the rats by sending jolts to pleasure centers. In the movie, brain implants trigger a euphoric feeling in victims, turning them into zombies willing to commit murder.

“The potential to do something like this eventually is completely possible,” Lombard says. “And completely immoral.”

Mind-control stories have been movie staples for decades, traceable to Communists brainwashing prisoners during the Korean War era. The original version of The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, which starred Frank Sinatra, played on this popular belief.

In recent years, Hollywood has picked up on neuroscience’s potential for abuse. Last year’s Paycheck and the more recent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind revolved around memory-erasing technology.

Neuroscientists increasingly are considering the implications of their research. The ethics of neurology is a standard topic at Society of Neuroscience meetings, Illes says. “In the past three years, I’d say, the field has become much more concerned and aware.”

Much of that concern is driven by the possibility of people using brain implants to exceed their normal limits. A case discussed by the president’s council this year involved a graphic artist with obsessive-compulsive disorder who became more creative under the influence of brain-implant chips. What happens, panel members wondered, when perfectly healthy people start looking to implants to boost their capabilities?

From a psychologist’s viewpoint, The Manchurian Candidate’s implant scenario sounds far off and reminiscent of some often-reported delusions, says Steven Hassan of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Somerville, Mass. “I have 30 years of doing work in this area, and I have repeatedly met people who claim aliens or the CIA implanted mind-control chips in them. I have yet to see those chips show up in brain scans.”

But “mind control” is a different matter. “If you polled psychologists about whether people can exert psychological influence over others, most would likely say yes,” Hassan says. Cults, for example, typically impose gradually increasing limits on behavior, information, emotions and thinking in members to control their lives.

“What we now know is it doesn’t take a lot of effort,” Hassan says. “The movie is a chance to have a dialogue about mind control. The truth is in our face. With terrorism, we see people can be made into killers.”

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