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Some Believe 'Truth Serums' Will Come Back

Curiously, truth serum was once viewed as a way of preventing, not promoting, abusive interrogations.

The Prohibition era, which coincided with scopolamine's popularity, produced widespread graft in police departments and district attorneys' offices. Reports of "third-degree" interrogation and forced confessions were common.

"In this climate 'truth serum' was powerfully represented as a sophisticated, scientific, and non-violent alternative to unsavory police methods," wrote Alison Winter in a history of truth serum published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine in 2005.

This ambiguous legal status, combined with advances in neuroscience, lead some to suspect there may be a second act for truth serum.

"There is a large number of neural circuits that we are on the verge of being able to manipulate -- things that govern states like fear, anxiety, terror and depression," said Mark Wheelis, a scientist at the University of California at Davis and a historian of chemical and biological warfare.

"We don't have recipes yet to control them, but the potential is clearly foreseeable," he said. "It would absolutely astonish me if we didn't identify a range of pharmaceuticals that would be of great utility to interrogators."

Recent research with the hormone oxytocin is especially provocative in this regard.

Produced by the brain, oxytocin is best known for stimulating uterine contraction during labor (when it is sometimes given under the trade name Pitocin), and for promoting milk "letdown" during breast feeding. Animal studies have shown it is also important in mate bonding and social attachment.

In a study published last year, Michael Kosfeld and Markus Heinrichs of the University of Zurich set up an experiment examining oxytocin's effects on trust.

About 130 college students were randomly given a snort of oxytocin or placebo. Half were then designated "investors" and were given money. They could keep or transfer some or all of the money to a student "trustee," whom they did not know and could not see.

The act of transferring money tripled its value, creating a big payoff for the trustee receiving it. That person could then keep it all or acknowledge the investor's trust by returning some portion.

The investors getting oxytocin on average transferred more money than those getting placebos, and twice as many -- 45 percent vs. 21 percent -- showed maximal trust and transferred it all. Interestingly, oxytocin had no effect on how much money trustees shared back with their investors, suggesting that the hormone acted specifically to promote trust in situations where there was risk and uncertainty.

Paul J. Zak, a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, helped supervise the Swiss experiment. He later went to a meeting called by DARPA and presented the findings. When he was finished, a military scientist asked him: "How do I use this stuff tomorrow?"

Zak said he dodged the question. He observed that classic interrogation techniques, in which one person acts as the "good cop" and creates a bond with the prisoner, probably already makes use of the brain's own oxytocin. He added that, "we are just showing you the neurophysiology behind it."

And that ended the conversation.

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