Human Nature

Night of the Living Meds

The U.S. military’s sleep-reduction program.

A soldier in Baghdad at night

You don’t have to worry anymore about the possibility of an arms race in pharmaceutical enhancement of combat troops. It’s already here.

The evidence is laid out in “Human Performance,” a report commissioned by the Pentagon’s Office of Defense Research and Engineering. The document, issued by a defense science advisory group known as JASON, was published earlier this year. It was flagged by Secrecy News and came to Slate’s attention through Wired’s military blog, Danger Room.

The report is unclassified because there’s nothing earth-shattering in it. Indeed, it debunks some fanciful brain-augmentation scenarios. What it offers instead is a level-headed account of how cognitive performance-enhancement technology is already entering military practice. The gateway application for this technology isn’t sensory acuity or information processing. It’s sleep reduction.

According to the report, “The most immediate human performance factor in military effectiveness is degradation of performance under stressful conditions, particularly sleep deprivation. If an opposing force had a significant sleep advantage, this would pose a serious threat.” Consequently, “the manipulation and understanding of human sleep is one part of human performance modification where significant breakthroughs could have national security consequences.”

That’s the theory. But it’s not just a theory, the report notes; it’s a proven pattern in military history.

Sleep deprivation is known to have significantly harmful impact on physical performance, alertness, and the ability to perform complex cognitive tasks. In planning their campaigns, battlefield commanders have to weigh carefully the negative impact on the effectiveness of their forces of extended periods of wakefulness and combat. In addition, under appropriate conditions on the tactical battlefield, sleep deprivation and exhaustion can be and has been exploited militarily as a specific mechanism to weaken opposing forces. This observation … is illustrated by accounts of General George Patton’s almost legendary pattern of driving his army with extreme aggressiveness in World War II, based on his stated conviction that it was the way to reach his goal more rapidly and with fewer casualties. The point is to maximally exploit the state of exhaustion of one’s enemy. It seems intuitive that, in combat between two armies at comparable levels of sleep deprivation, the advantage is with the force on offense in its ability to stress the opposition’s state of exhaustion.

Deprivation. Degradation. Exhaustion. Harmful impact. All of these terms imply a deficit, a reduction from normal performance. This is another reason why sleep modification is the gateway app for cognitive military enhancement. We can tell ourselves and the rest of the world that we’re not really making our troops superhuman; we’re just restoring their natural powers. In the report’s words:

If we take as a given that soldiers on the battlefield will always need to undergo sleep deprivation, sometimes severe, and given that such sleep deprivation leads to large performance degradation, it follows that any method for improving how soldiers behave under sleep deprivation will have significant consequences for either our own forces or an adversary that learns to solve this problem.

In concrete terms, sleep modification will save lives. This is the trump card for any controversial biotechnology. The report calculates:

[T]he maximum casualty rate depends strongly on the individual’s sleep need, τ0. Hence any effort to improve human performance to minimize τ0 for given tasks can lead to a significant decrease in the casualty rate, of [about] 20 percent. … Suppose a human could be engineered who slept for the same amount of time as a giraffe (1.9 hours per night). This would lead to an approximately twofold decrease in the casualty rate. An adversary would need an approximately 40 percent increase in the troop level to compensate for this advantage.

Massively reduced casualties—how could anyone oppose that? In the face of these numbers, sleep modification, if practical, ceases to be an option. It becomes an obligation. Foregoing it begins to feel as derelict as failing to supply our troops with adequate body armor.

But is it practical? Will it harm our brave young men and women? Relax. Our brave young men and women are already doing it. The report notes:

The use of supplements, primarily to ameliorate sleep deprivation and to improve physical performance, is report[ed] to be common among US military personnel. This behavior is a cultural norm in the US and is recognized, but not endorsed, by the US military. For instance the PX at most military bases stock popular supplements.

The part about the military not “endorsing” these chemicals is pretty rich. The armed forces are up to their eyeballs in research on drugs to facilitate sleep reduction. The report cites a recent study, conducted by the Military Nutrition Division of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, which

involved tests of the effects of caffeine on performance for a group of Navy SEALS, following 72 hours of intense training activity with almost total sleep deprivation. A variety of metrics were used, including computer-based tests of reaction speed and mental acuity, psychiatric self-assessment surveys, and marksmanship tests. The test was to determine the optimal caffeine dose to ameliorate the effects of fatigue and stress.

The study concluded that caffeine “significantly improved visual vigilance, choice reaction time, repeated acquisition, self-reported fatigue and sleepiness.”

But caffeine was only the beginning. “The US military … has a long-standing effort in tracking and evaluating popular supplements,” says the report. “To date, 86 proposed ergogenic and cognitive aids have been evaluated.” These apparently include “amphetamines and modafinil,” which “are known to be effective for combating the effects of sleep deficit.” But the hot target now is a class of chemicals called ampakines. On this subject, the report cites several studies funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, particularly a paper called “Facilitation of Task Performance and Removal of the Effects of Sleep Deprivation by an Ampakine (CX717) in Nonhuman Primates.”  The report notes that the study found

a clear improvement in performance, correlated with changes in fMRI patterns, when the monkeys were treated with ampakines. … Repeating the tasks with sleep-deprived monkeys that had been administered ampakines … restored performance to levels comparable to or better than those for well-rested monkeys without ampakine treatment.

Clearly, we’re well on our way to systematizing sleep reduction. But we don’t want to be accused of starting the pharmaceutical arms race. So let’s blame it on somebody else. Let’s say we’re doing this research not to enhance our troops, but to prepare for the possibility that our enemies will enhance theirs first. Accordingly, the report advises the armed forces to

Monitor enemy activities in sleep research, and maintain close understanding of open source sleep research. Use in-house military research on the safety and effectiveness of newly developing drugs for ameliorating the effects of sleep deprivation, such as ampakines, as a baseline for evaluating potential activities of adversaries.

There you have it: To make the world safe from sleep reduction, we’re working night and day on the world’s most advanced program in sleep reduction. You can rest easy, knowing our troops are wide awake.