Study Urges Using Neuroscience To Improve Soldiers' Performance

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

A blue-ribbon committee of the National Academy of Sciences is recommending that the Army expand its research into how a soldier's brain, blood and nerves work so it can develop futuristic applications that can increase performance and survivability in combat.

"The Army should monitor the progress of research in these areas and evaluate the results for promising Army-relevant applications," the committee says in a report on neuroscience and the Army that was released last week.

Neuroimaging technologies now becoming available will allow "visualization of brain regions that are activated during action-guiding cognitive processes such as decision-making," the study says.

Fear can harm an individual soldier or an entire unit. The report suggests incorporating fear-invoking situations in training, then comparing "before" and "after" brain scans "to determine which environments elicit fear-correlated neural activity patterns."

It notes that during the Persian Gulf War, fear resulted when sensors indicated the presence of chemical warfare agents, and there was "significant disorganization of military units even when the sensor warnings were false positives."

The ability of the human eye to recognize minute changes in the surroundings or follow roadway changes in electronic visual displays mounted in tanks or armored personnel vehicles could help spot improvised explosive devices. Current technology can detect the changes in a scene as it looks out over natural areas; the pictures are stored in the brain of the machine. Eye-movement studies have led to devices that could be used to detect minor changes in the visual field and automatically cue the brain to that spot, according to the study.

There are also biometric technologies "capable of identifying specific individuals from a distance" while also watching the natal area. This gives the soldier time to process data on the individual, thus "reducing the likelihood of error."

It would be useful for a battlefield commander to have real-time indications that his soldiers are near work overload, under stress or facing exhaustion. There are devices under development that may have brain-computer interfaces, but the most reliable require a gel on the scalp to capture the brain's electronic signals, disqualifying them for combat operations.

Perhaps the best tool for understanding brain function is the MRI. But as the study points out, MRIs are almost entirely done with the subject lying down. And they take time. To be of practical use to the Army, they need MRIs with the subjects sitting or standing. The panel, however, believes the Army should find a partner who can help fund what could be a five-year, $10 million project.

The Army already uses virtual reality technology in training its troops in simulators and in creating virtual combat environments. It has not yet exploited, according to the committee, three-dimensional interfaces that provide the feeling and sensation "of physically manipulating what are in fact virtual devices."

One step beyond virtual reality is augmented reality, which displays the actual world mixed with the virtual world. Questions arising about augmented reality might include: With a helmet-mounted viewer for one eye, how do you change the electronically generated world to the actual world as the soldier moves from one place to another? How does the soldier avoid being disoriented if there is a mismatch between what he sees that is already in the machine and what he sees with his other eye?

There are simpler present-day augmented reality opportunities, the committee said. The report describes having a virtual overlay associated with the trigger of a soldier's weapon, which provides a sensory feedback when it locks on a target identified as a foe. The soldier can be trained so that he pulls the trigger without thinking, "decreasing the time between acquiring and engaging the target," the study says.

The panel recognized roadblocks, starting with problems in the added weight neuroscience technology devices could add to a modern infantryman's already heavy load. A recent National Research Council study said any new helmet-mounted device should not interfere with "ballistic protection, helmet stability or freedom of head movement." Also, it should not add more than 2.2 pounds to a helmet or four pounds to a backpack.

Noting that physics and chemistry are the basic sciences for the Army's bullets, shells, tanks, missiles and aircraft, the committee thinks that "neuroscience as defined in this report is the foundational science for the soldier."

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