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Bioethics of ultimate pain

March 26, 2005

Sometimes you open a magazine and see something so awful you just want to close it again and pretend you didn’t see it:
New Scientist -  Maximum pain is aim of Navy study

THE US military is funding development of a weapon that delivers a bout of excruciating pain from up to 2 kilometres away. Intended for use against rioters, it is meant to leave victims unharmed. But pain researchers are furious that work aimed at controlling pain has been used to develop a weapon. And they fear that the technology will be used for torture…

The rest of the article describes a laser/plasma weapon which triggers nerve impulses, and the effort to “optimize” the effect in animal tests.

The contract … asks researchers to look for “optimal pulse parameters to evoke peak nociceptor activation” – in other words, cause the maximum pain possible. Studies on cells grown in the lab will identify how much pain can be inflicted on someone before causing injury or death. (emphasis mine)…

To make matters worse, it reminded me that the US Army is researching the basis of chronic pain following surgery, and has found tantalizing hints that the brain continues to receive pain signals even during anaesthesia.  The brain overcompensates afterword in some individuals, resulting in untreatable chronic pain. 

It is a neurochemical mechanism where pain can trip the nervous system over onto another level of sensitivity.  A battlefield wound, or even routine surgery, can lead to a lifetime of pain.

This is of more than academic interest to me, since I suffer from a chronic pain disorder which began years ago after several bouts with kidney stones and surgical procedures.  Is this what lies in store for protesters (let’s not kid ourselves; it will be used on protesters) who are hit with the new weapon?

…Amanda Williams, a clinical psychologist at University College London, fears that victims risk long-term harm. “Persistent pain can result from a range of supposedly non-destructive stimuli which nevertheless change the functioning of the nervous system,” she says…

It makes me think of that scene in the original Star Wars movie where Han Solo is tortured by a horrible machine.  I remember thinking; “Someday someone is going to build something like that.”  It didn’t occur to me that it would be a “nonlethal” weapon that could be fired into a crowd.

Categories: News
  1. March 28, 2005 at 11:26 | #1

    Sadly, there’s nothing so wonderful that it won’t be turned into a weapon by someone.  I fight chronic pain, too – fibromyalgia and arthritis.  People who don’t have chronic pain have no idea the amount of brain power that gets sucked up in dealing with it.

  2. March 28, 2005 at 12:25 | #2

    “Sometimes you open a magazine and see something so awful you just want to close it again and pretend you didn’t see it:”</i>
    Almost everyday. All I have to do is pick up a newspaper, log onto a news website, or turn on a cable news network.  If we aren’t living in the endo days, I hope I don’t live to see them!

  3. March 29, 2005 at 10:07 | #3

    Scary, scary, scary!  It sounds so…  Star-Trekky.  So what, rioters need to invent “dampening fields” to keep their nerve endings safe?  Eek.

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