For years, and with many false starts and failed attempts, researchers have sought to develop ways to raise the IQ of the average human, for obvious reasons: Smarter humans would, they assume, be fitter, happier and more productive.
No one needs intelligence more than the military. That's why the U.S. armed forces and intelligence services are working on a stunning array of pioneering brain development techniques that could one day make their way into civilian life. "The sophistication of our weapons and communications technologies in the Navy and elsewhere is growing dramatically," says Harold Hawkins, a cognitive psychologist and the director of a program at the Office of Naval Research studying brain training. "To have intellectually stronger people to deal with these new systems is going to be critical."
The Army, Navy and Air Force are all funding substantial research programs, but a $12 million program approved in January by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is one of the largest. It will pay for the first year of a planned three-and-a-half-year program called Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem-solving (SHARP).
The SHARP program is studying techniques both ancient and avant-garde, from meditation to low-dose electrical stimulation of the brain, with an aim toward making intelligence analysts, well, more intelligent. Also on the drawing board are large-scale studies of computerized games that have shown promise in smaller studies for strengthening "working memory" - the critical-thinking ability to not simply remember facts and figures but to juggle and manipulate them. "If these interventions are actually doing what we think they're doing," says Adam Russell, a neuroscientist and the SHARP program's manager at IARPA, "we should be able to demonstrate that with large numbers of participants, strong metrics and a real-world test battery."
Other programs funded by the Defense Department are pursuing similar goals. At the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the Human Effectiveness Directorate has found that transcranial direct-current stimulation - using the equivalent of a 9-volt battery to send electricity to selected regions of the brain - improves some cognitive abilities, including attention and memory, by up to 200 percent for as long as six hours following treatment. "The results were quite surprising," says Andy McKinley a biomedical engineer, and the program's team leader. "It could be that a pilot would need a treatment in the morning, and the effects would last the rest of his shift."
Some of the mental benefits of the cognitive training programs might last even longer. "It's analogous to what goes on for someone who wants to join the Navy SEALs," Hawkins told Newsweek. "We give them a fitness test, and maybe they can't do the required minimum 10 pull-ups. But they go into a training program and over six months or a year, they reach the standards and get in. It could be the same thing in terms of strengthening cognitive capabilities."
The work has wide implications, both inside the military and out. Children with learning disabilities, teens hoping to score better on standardized tests and elderly adults hoping to forestall cognitive decline are all potential beneficiaries if the research pans out.
Some of the technologies being explored sound close to science fiction. While most of the military research programs focus on beefing up the three pounds of computing power located between service members' ears, the Translational Neuroscience Branch of the Army Research Laboratory seeks to increase smarts through the aid of computers that can sense an operator's fatigue and attentiveness. Real-time brain scanners worn in a helmet or even inside a baseball cap have already been developed. "A lot of people react to this as being mind reading," says Kaleb McDowell, a neuroscientist and the branch chief. "That's not how we see it. We seek to take a human and merge him or her with an intelligent system that has the ability to sense when they're tired, distracted or under stress."
Some might question the ethical implications of computer-aided soldiers, but McDowell sees the new systems as simply improving on what computers already do in today's cars. "I was once sitting in the passenger seat of a test vehicle going 40 miles an hour," he says. "I could see by the driver's face that he was about to mess up. He just wasn't paying attention. That made me realize that the computer system should know that, too. There is a lot you can tell just from how wide the eyes are opened."
While McDowell's program seeks to correct the mental decline associated with stress and fatigue, the Restoring Active Memory program run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency goes a step farther: to overcome traumatic brain injuries with computer implants. "We call them neural prosthetics," says Justin Sanchez, a biomedical engineer who manages the program. "We had a preliminary program in rodents to show that when there's an injury we could bridge the gap to restore the fundamental memory structure of the brain. It's quite remarkable to say that we now have enough of an understanding about the formation of these memories that we can build a prosthetic in humans."
An estimated 300,000 military personnel have been affected by brain injuries, ranging from mild to severe. Many of these people have impaired memories, Sanchez says. He expects the agency to release a budget document detailing a "very large investment" in the next month or two. Five years from now, he hopes to have a prototype built, tested in humans and ready to present for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Some soldiers have already benefited from some of the new cognitive treatments. In October 2010 Jessie Kent Fletcher was serving as a Marine scout sniper in Helmand Province in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device near the top of a hill. After somersaulting through the air and landing on his back, he saw that both of his lower legs and several fingers were gone. Even more devastating, though, was the loss of his memory and mental focus. "That was the hardest part of the recovery - trying to get back my memory and the functions of day-to-day living," Fletcher told Newsweek. "Without your mind, it's really hard to continue moving forward. My attention to detail became so gray. I was just baffled."
After four months of computerized brain training during 2012 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center's Brain Fitness Center, Fletcher said his cognitive abilities went "from subpar to excellent." Now married to his longtime girlfriend, he lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., where they both attend Salem College. During his freshman semester last fall, he earned straight A's. "I don't want to live on retirement the rest of my life," Fletcher says. "I want to be a productive member of society."
Despite such testimonials, a small band of academic skeptics remain outspoken, in part because of technical errors they see in some of the recently published studies, and in part because the history of IQ-raising interventions has been marked by disappointment. "There have been a lot of studies published showing hints that training might work, but invariably we find some important flaw in those studies," says Michigan State University psychologist D. Zachary Hambrick. "The devil's in the details. What's needed now is a big study that's carefully designed to settle this one way or another."
To answer such concerns, both Hawkins and Russell have recruited the field's most prominent skeptic, Georgia Tech psychologist Randall Engle, to be actively involved in designing the new studies. "I'm very happy Randy is involved," says Russell. "I think there's a real role for hard-core skeptics, for people who say we need more proof."