Maximum pain is aim of new US weapon

Allen L. Barker alb at
Fri Mar 4 18:50:09 EST 2005

Maximum pain is aim of new US weapon
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
David Hambling
19:00 02 March 2005

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.

"I am deeply concerned about the ethical aspects of this research,"
says Andrew Rice, a consultant in pain medicine at Chelsea and
Westminster Hospital in London, UK. "Even if the use of temporary
severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not
believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are

The research came to light in documents unearthed by the Sunshine
Project, an organisation based in Texas and in Hamburg, Germany, that
exposes biological weapons research. The papers were released under
the US's Freedom of Information Act.

One document, a research contract between the Office of Naval Research
and the University of Florida in Gainesville, US, is entitled "Sensory
consequences of electromagnetic pulses emitted by laser induced

It concerns so-called Pulsed Energy Projectiles (PEPs), which fire a
laser pulse that generates a burst of expanding plasma when it hits
something solid, like a person (New Scientist print edition, 12
October 2002). The weapon, destined for use in 2007, could literally
knock rioters off their feet.

Pain trigger

According to a 2003 review of non-lethal weapons by the US Naval
Studies Board, which advises the navy and marine corps, PEPs produced
"pain and temporary paralysis" in tests on animals. This appears to be
the result of an electromagnetic pulse produced by the expanding
plasma which triggers impulses in nerve cells.

The new study, which runs until July and will be carried out with
researchers at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, aims to
optimise this effect. The idea is to work out how to generate a pulse
which triggers pain neurons without damaging tissue.

The contract, heavily censored before release, 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.

Long-term risk

New Scientist contacted two researchers working on the project. Martin
Richardson, a laser expert at the University of Central Florida, US,
refused to comment. Brian Cooper, an expert in dental pain at the
University of Florida, distanced himself from the work, saying "I
don't have anything interesting to convey. I was just providing some
background for the group." His name appears on a public list of the
university's research projects next to the $500,000-plus grant.

John Wood of University College London, UK, an expert in how the brain
perceives pain, says the researchers involved in the project should
face censure. "It could be used for torture," he says, "the
[researchers] must be aware of this."

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. She is
concerned that studies of cultured cells will fall short of
demonstrating a safe level for a plasma burst. "They cannot tell us
about the pain and psychological consequences of such a painful

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