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Could Terrorists Hijack Your Brain?

According to a new report on biosecurity, technological advances in the not-so-distant future may make it a possibility.
February 1, 2006

Security experts need to prepare for a much broader spectrum of potential bioterror agents, according to a report released this week by the Washington, DC-based National Academies.

Most bioweapons research has focused on traditional biological agents, such as anthrax and smallpox. But that focus is dangerously narrow, the report says; emerging technologies in biotechnology and the life sciences could be hijacked to take control of genes, immune systems, and even brains.

“The threat is extremely broad, and it is increasingly global,” says Stanley M. Lemon, cochair of the advisory committee and director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.

In order to prepare for the ever-changing “threat spectrum,” the report recommends that technologies with dual-use potential – those that can be used to either help or harm humanity – be continually reassessed to take account of rapid advances in biotechnology. The report also suggests that a scientific advisory board be developed to aid the national security community and to ensure that teams monitoring these threats have the most up-to-date scientific expertise.

Recognizing that the list of bioterror threats is constantly changing is itself a huge transition, says Drew Endy, a biological engineer at MIT and leader in the new field of synthetic biology. “It’s like the transition from trench warfare to mobilized warfare between World War I and World War II,” he says. “How do we begin to defend ourselves against that dynamic threat landscape? How do we adapt our health, medical, and biodefense systems to respond to that?”

The committee recommended broad measures – ones that would be useful regardless of the form of attack – such as strengthening the nation’s public health infrastructure. The report also suggested incentives for the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries to create broadly active vaccines and other products that can protect against diverse agents.

Scientists who drafted the report were also particularly concerned about the potential of bioregulators – small, biologically active organic compounds that can regulate different systems in the body. Newer technologies such as targeted delivery methods that zero in on the immune or neuroendocrine systems could make it easier to use bioregulators in insidious ways.

Terrorists could also co-opt relatively new technologies, such as synthetic biology, which aims to build organisms that can detect or produce chemicals or perform other functions; and RNA interference, a technique that allows scientists to easily control gene expression.

As these kinds of technologies become increasingly commonplace throughout the world, the international scientific community will need to take more responsibility for the potential abuses of biotechnology, according to the report. Josh Epstein, a committee member and senior fellow on economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, says one option is a Web-based forum where scientists can report suspicious research.

The committee also endorsed an open exchange of information in the life sciences as much as possible, emphasizing that the best means of protecting against future threats is further advances in technology.