Flying 30,000 feet over enemy territory, a cadre of troops prepares to to free-fall until the last possible moment in order to avoid detection. On the ground, they'll need to move silently to rescue a captured soldier. Tension is high. So as they're given a signal to prepare to jump, each soldier adjusts a dial that controls their nervous system, triggering a sudden drop in adrenaline. In a moment, their anxiety, their fear, is gone. And then they leap.
This isn't a real scenario — yet. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Pentagon's mad-scientist division, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, held a conference to pitch third-party biotechnology labs on breakthroughs in useful sciences that DARPA believes are possible and is interested in funding.
One of the big standouts? The ability to control human fear and anxiety.
When DARPA program manager Doug Weber spoke at the Biology Is Technology conference Tuesday, he presented a challenge: creating advanced bioelectric medicines, or tools to directly communicate with and deliver information to the nervous system.
Being able to manipulate our body's complicated circuitry would mean being able to manually lower blood pressure, reclaim use of paralyzed muscles, moderate response to infectious disease and even control adrenal response — which could both do away with anxiety medications and curb our own fear response.
"That would be especially useful for our war fighters who have to deal with very stressful environments," Weber told Mic. "PTSD has a sequelae of anxiety disorders that fall from it. So instead of having to take a medication, we could use the body's internal circuitry to regulate stress levels. It would be a game changer."
The fix would be a major tide-turn for soldiers. According to a 2010 report from the Army Times, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldier and recent-veteran use of psychiatric and anti-psychotic medications skyrocketed, resulting in accidental deaths from overuse.
Of all the outcomes of the technology, Weber conceded that moderating adrenal response isn't the easiest task of the bunch — followed closely by the ability to restore function to paralyzed muscles in people who've suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury, which is stifled by the inability to pinpoint and control individual muscles.
However, technology to raise or lower blood pressure with the turn of a dial is incredibly close. "Getting at the anatomical targets is a bit trickier but can be done," Weber told Mic. "Though their efficacy still has to be determined, there are actually devices approved for human use that will enable that to happen."
The implications for a fully manipulatable immune system are massive — and not just for the military. We could return muscle function to someone suffering from paralysis, yes, but also keep muscles from failing in old age. Biological programming could do away with inflammatory diseases anywhere on the spectrum from arthritis to multiple sclerosis. Heart attacks from plaque-filled arteries could be greatly reduced by dialing down one's own blood pressure. And anyone from children with anxiety to soldiers with severe post-traumatic stress could find alternatives to taking daily medication.
It could, in other words, vastly improve life for millions of people.