Saturday, March 5, 2005The US military is funding the research and development of a weapon that could be used to inflict excruciating pain from up to 2 kilometres away, but is meant to otherwise leave victims unharmed. Pain researchers have been left furious after work aimed at controlling pain has been used to develop technology aimed at maximising it.

Intended for use against protesters and rioters, the research focuses on the effect electromagnetic pulses can have on pain reception. Due to be ready by 2007, the Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP) weapon will fire a burst of electrically charged gas, or plasma, which will generate an electromagnetic pulse on impact. It is this pulse which will trigger impulses in nerve cells causing extreme pain.

A review of the non-lethal weapon by the US Naval Studies Board in 2003 concluded that PEPs produced “pain and temporary paralysis” in animal test subjects. Studies ongoing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando aim at optimising this effect. The ultimate aim is to generate a pulse which will trigger optimum pain in the subject without damaging tissues. Studies due to be carried out on lab grown cells aim at identifying the threshold of pain that can be inflicted on someone without causing death. There is some concern that the studies will fall short of demonstrating a safe level for a plasma burst.

The work came to light after documents were released under the US’s Freedom of Information Act to the Sunshine Project, an organisation who aims to expose biological weapons research. One document entitled “Sensory consequences of electromagnetic pulses emitted by laser induced plasmas” concerned the generation and firing of PEPs. Pain researchers have condemned the research, claiming that it could be put to use as a means of torture and that it is unethical.

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

Clinical psychologist at University College London, Amanda Williams expressed concern that victims risk long term harm. “Persistent pain can result in a range supposedly non-destructive stimuli which nevertheless change the functioning of the nervous system,” she says. Studies “cannot tell us about the pain and psychological consequences of such painful experience,” she said.