'Brain-zapped' pilots can better handle high-stress scenarios

‘Brain-Zapped’ Pilots Perform Better

posted by Paul Fiddian | 10.11.2016

Electric Brain Stimulation Combats Frontline Fatigue

30+ minutes of electrical brain stimulation enabled service personnel to communicate and follow targets more effectively in high-pressure situations.

US military scientists from Wright State University (WSU) and the US Air Force have been carrying out radical ‘brain-zapping’ experiments.

They’ve shown that electrically stimulating the brain can boost overall performance in high-stress scenarios, like air-to-air combat sorties or remotely-operated UAV missions.

Details of the work they’ve carried out appear in an open-content paper that ‘Frontiers in Human Neuroscience’ has just published. The paper is named ‘The Effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) on Multitasking Throughput Capacity.’

Operational Multitasking

US defence officials have discovered, over the years, that operationally-deployed personnel have a finite data input and processing capacity. Given that they’re already multitasking and having to process a vast amount of information simultaneously, a point’s reached where they just can’t absorb any more, or process it rapidly enough.

Stress, fatigue, anxiety – all can play a part, officials say, and all too often it’s these mental factors that can compromise frontline personnel’s capability. UAV operations have proved especially draining, so much so that, reportedly, the USAF had to scale back its drone operations schedule last year amidst hordes of resignations. Now, $125,000 bonuses are being offered to entice in new operators but uptake – so far, at least – hasn’t been too great.

UAV Operations

Frontline Fatigue

‘Within the air force, various operations such as remotely piloted and manned aircraft operations require a human operator to monitor and respond to multiple events simultaneously over a long period of time’, the scientists write. ‘With the monotonous nature of these tasks, the operator’s performance may decline shortly after their work shift commences.’

What’s been done before to combat frontline fatigue? Well, for one thing, stimulant medications have certainly been tried in the past but, in light of more recent health regulator findings, alternative remedies are now being explored.

Representatives of the Biomedical, Industrial and Human Factors Engineering department at WSU have been working with a military research team based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, located in Ohio, on a ‘non-invasive’ alertness-boosting approach. The brain-stimulating kit they’ve developed features a five-electrode array. These electrodes transmit low-intensity currents into specific cerebral cortex points via a technique called ‘TDCS’ (Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation), targeting the brain region where decision-making, reasoning and memory-based processes all take place.

Military TDCS Trials

The military researchers’ TDCS trials involved 20 USAF personnel averaging 31 years of age. A mix of male and female service members took part but, numerically, men dominated women by 4:1.

Participants were divided into groups: half being ‘zapped’ with a two-milliamp current for more than 30 minutes, the remainder, just 30 seconds, while carrying out NASA-developed multitasking assessments and other tasks. Significantly better performances were demonstrated by the ‘constant-zap’ group, especially so far as communicating and target-following were concerned.

‘The ability for a human operator to multitask efficiently in a military setting has been a major issue for the past several decades’, explain the scientists. ‘Lower sensor and display costs have resulted in a large increase in the information that can be presented to the human operator.’

‘The data from the experiment reported herein provide new evidence that attention/vigilance performance is enhanced even when attention is divided among multiple tasks. This potentially has important implications for high workload environments that provide information to the operator via a wide range of stimuli.’

Next, ‘additional research should be conducted to evaluate the robustness of these observed effects.’

USAF F-16 pilot image copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
UAV operators image copyright USMC – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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