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Device would use electricity to make airmen's brains work faster

Feb. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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The Air Force is looking into building a device that sends an electric current to the brain to help airmen learn faster and ward off fatigue.

“Our goal is to examine this technology and really find out what it does really well and what it doesn’t do very well and then tailor some solutions for specific career fields and ultimately have a deployable device that could be used by real operators,” said Andy McKinley, of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The laboratory has been running a series of experiments for the past several years that have found that using electricity to amplify the brain’s natural activities accelerates airmen’s ability to identify images as either friend or foe, said McKinley, a biomedical engineer who oversees the project.

The experiments have also shown that airmen who received the current felt less drowsy afterward, McKinley said. This could help special operators, aircrews and other airmen who don’t get enough sleep due to mission requirements.

“We think that there are definitely applications for image analysis, and really any type of career field that requires a lot of supervisory control where the person isn’t doing a whole lot of activity, they’re just kind of monitoring a system,” McKinley said. “So it could be a cyber operator. It could be a sensor operator for a remotely piloted aircraft. It could be an image analyst.”

It is not yet known why the electric current helps airmen learn, but scientists have a few theories, McKinley said. The current could make airmen more attentive when hearing instructions; it could increase the brain’s processing power; or it could accelerate the formation of new connections in the brain.

The electric current does not feel like a shock, McKinley said. Those who have undergone the experiments have described feeling a warm, itchy or tingly sensation, while 7 percent of the airmen have said they felt a headache afterward. The experiments have also shown that airmen who received the current felt less drowsy afterward, McKinley said.

Combating fatigue has been a longtime challenge for aircrews. In the most recent Air Force mishap tied to fatigue, a C-17 landed 1,000 feet short of the runway May 9 at Dover Air Force Base, Del., causing $7 million in damage to the plane. The crew was on a 22-hour day at the time and an investigation found that fatigue likely caused the pilot to come in at the wrong glide­slope and slowed both his and the co-pilot’s reaction time as things went wrong.

Afterward, Air Mobility Command released a fatigue modeling Web program to give mission planners a better model of crew fatigue, according to a Dec. 18 email from the office of Maj. Gen. Scott Hanson, director of operations for AMC. The program gives input on projected times of day when the crews’ performance might be degraded by fatigue and serves as a guide for adjusting mission start times and crew rest periods.

While it is not yet known why the electricity keeps airmen awake and attentive, the Air Force hopes to have the prototype in the next five years for a device that would attach to airmen’s heads and send electrical currents, McKinley said.

“There are still some questions we have to answer scientifically,” he said. “Nobody has really looked at what happens when you do this repeatedly. What’s the effect of doing this every day? That kind of thing needs to be answered. We’ve got to advance the technology a little bit more in terms of making it easy to apply.”■

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