If you have been searching for new ways to manipulate the cognitive and decision-making abilities of an arch nemesis, look no further. James Giordano, Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, shares about neuroethics, his eureka moment at 6 years old, and working with Hollywood.

Tell us about your background.   How does one become an expert on neuroethics?  By the way, what is neuroethics?  Can you tell us a little about the research that’s being conducted in your field?

I am a neuroscientist and neuroethicist; my undergraduate work was in physiological psychology and philosophy, and I went on to take a Masters degree in philosophy and complete my doctoral studies in biological psychology, because at that time there were only a few programs in neuroscience, per se. I did my postdoctoral work in neuropathology and neurotoxicology and spent the first 20-odd years of my career engaged in basic and clinical neuroscientific research—mostly studying mechanisms of pain and consciousness.

About 15 years ago, I became deeply involved with ethical issues in neuroscience and medicine, and at the same time began investigating the neuroscience of morality. These last 2 areas of interest that actually comprise the discipline of neuroethics and so I came to be a neuroethicist by virtue of the focus and direction of my scientific work and its ethical, legal and social implications. In short, neuroethics is a field with 2 major emphases: First, is the study of the neurological mechanisms involved in morality and ethics, and second, is the ethical issues that arise in and from neuroscientific and neurotechnological research, and its applications in medicine, public life, and national security and defense.

Interest in neuroscience has never been higher.  Why do you think that is?

Without a doubt, public interest in neuroscience is growing, which I believe reflects the progress and potential effects of the field. In short, the more we know about the nervous system and the brain, the more we can—and likely will—do with this knowledge and capability. That tends to leverage a lot of power, and as you know—and history has shown—power can be used in benevolent or more nefarious ways.

Have moviemakers been inspired by advancements in neuroscience? Why do you think that being able to control the brain is such an appealing subject for filmmakers?

I think that it is this power, and it’s potential for both good and evil that has great appeal for moviemakers, in that it directly engages the public psyche and imagination in ways that elicit either utopian ideals or dystopian anxieties. So, for example, we can look back onto the historiography of film and see ample evidence of some form of even rudimentary “brain science” in movies that deal with mind control (such as the original Manchurian Candidate), neurotechnology (such as Charly, Terminal Man, and Gattaca), and the possibilities offered through the use of science to access or engage the brain (in films such as Fantastic Voyage, the most recent Planet of the Apes, and Limitless).

Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up?  What were your favorites?  What shows do you watch now?

This question really speaks to that “eureka moment” that made me want to become a neuroscientist as a kid. When I was 6 years old, I saw the film Fantastic Voyage; I was hooked… I can actually remember thinking that this was the coolest thing imaginable: to use all of this great science, such as submarine technology, lasers, miniaturization- to gain access into, explore, and affect the human body and the brain/mind. Of course, I grew up during the early 1960s—a time of “big science” innovation in agendas like the space program, and developments in medicine such as heart transplants and other surgical advances.

As well, my father was an engineer and he and I would spend a lot of time building, fixing, and even designing stuff. So, the whole idea of exploration and innovation became seared into my concept of fun and what I wanted to do for a living. I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been able to make those childhood dreams into a reality. And, I’m still hooked on sci-fi. Some of my favorite films are the “old classics” such as: First Men on the Moon, the original War of the Worlds, and Fritz Lang’s social commentary on science and technology as ideology, the silent classic, Metropolis. But there are some newer movies and TV shows that I also enjoy, such as Gattaca, Bladerunner, I Robot, and the new Battlestar Gallactica and Eureka TV shows.

You’ve consulted on several projects. We know you can’t share the details, but how have you been finding it? What have you enjoyed most in your role as a consultant?

It’s been a real thrill to consult on several projects with sci fi screenwriters. Their ideas are fascinating, and I’ve been wholly impressed with their knowledge and insight to the possible trajectories that brain science could assume. What’s been most enjoyable is working with these writers to proverbially “keep feet solidly anchored on the ground” of scientific fact, while at the same time being creative so as to let imagination take flight into the heights of new ideas about where such science could lead, and the effects and implications that these developments could incur. It’s been a total blast!

The Exchange recently hosted an event at the Directors Guild called A Night of Total Destruction.  The audience was fascinated by your description of neuro-nanobots—tiny machines that can be inhaled and act as radio-frequency transmitters inside the unsuspecting host.  It sounds like science fiction, so how close are we really to having these new applications of nanotechnology in our lives?  Do you think they make us appreciate science—or fear it?

I had great fun presenting at the Night of Total Destruction. What I tried to do was offer a description of those ways that neuroscience and neurotechnology can—and could—be used as weapons. In doing so, my intent was to present a basis of scientific fact, extrapolate that to the realm of realistic, near future possibilities, and in this way provide the audience of film makers fertile ground for their imaginations and storylines.

The idea of neuro-nanobots makes me chuckle; this technology is certainly on the planning-palette, and is on the drawing board of a possible end-goal, but, as I mentioned during NOTD, we’re not there yet. We are, however, to the point of engaging other aspects of nanotechnology to gain access to, and in some ways affect the function of the brain through the combination of using nanoscale materials to develop new formulations of drugs, and types of implantable devices that can be potentially used as sensors and transmitters.

This technology, like any aspect of neuroscience and neurotechnology is inherently “neutral”—it is neither “good” nor “harmful.” However, it’s important to appreciate the nasty effects that can arise from the unknown (think, for example, of the storyline in the film Mimic), and those harms that can be incurred when science is employed as a human enterprise to exert control or injury over others.

Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists? 

I think that films and TV shows certainly can—and often do—influence young people to become involved with science.  Very often, it’s the science itself that fosters this appeal, but it’s also the way that scientists are portrayed that may be seductive for these careers. That’s why I think it’s very important to ground the science itself, and/or the scientist characters in films and TV to as realistic a depiction as possible, while still preserving the fictional expanse of the ideas and plot.

It’s this “can do” concept of science and scientists that I believe has real allure for young people, and when coupled to the fun and exciting aspects of sci fi themes and plots, can be very influential in forming young persons’ zeal for science as a career.

What new projects do you have planned?  Any dream projects you’d love to consult on with filmmakers?  

Right now, I’m beginning to work on the next phases of an ongoing assessment of cutting-edge neurotechnologies, and a detailed analysis of the capabilities and limitations, and ethical, legal, and social issues that these developments foster. I’m also continuing my research on neural mechanisms involved in pain and pain modulation, starting a new University-based program in neuroscience, neurotechnology, and neuroethics in Munich, Germany, and am putting the wraps on a couple of book projects. 

Of course, I’m still working with writers through The Exchange, and if I had a “dream project,” it would be to consult on a re-make or new version of Fantastic Voyage—the film that sparked my interest in science almost 50 years ago.  Isaac Asimov had written an expanded edition some years before he passed away, in which he strove to deepen and strengthen the integrity of the science and technology, and I think he really got it right. Working on a re-make would bring the dreams and motivations of my childhood, realities of my scientific career, and the fun of working with Hollywood full-circle.