Wednesday, February 26, 2014

shock the monkey


NYTimes |  For some modern soldiers, caffeine is just not enough to stay vigilant, especially for the growing ranks of digital warriors who must spend hours monitoring spy drone footage and other streams of surveillance data.

So the Pentagon is exploring a novel way to extend troops’ attention spans and sharpen their reaction times: stimulate the brain with low levels of electricity.

It sounds like science fiction, but commanders in search of more effective tools than the ubiquitous cups of coffee and energy drinks are testing medical treatments designed to treat such brain disorders as depression to determine whether they can also improve the attentiveness of sleepdeprived but otherwise healthy troops.

Early experiments using “noninvasive” brain stimulation have been performed on several dozen volunteers at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The results show the technique improves both alertness and acuity, researchers say. 

“We found that people who receive the stimulation are performing consistently,” R. Andy McKinley, a biomedical engineer who oversees the research, said in an interview.

Project officials want to study the effects further — especially to determine whether it is safe to stimulate the brain regularly — but said there have been few side effects, such as some skin irritation from the electrodes, as well as mild but brief headaches. They expressed confidence that the work could ultimately result in a pair of easy-to-apply electrodes becoming standard issue for some military personnel.

But the hardware is unlikely to be standard issue for civilians any time soon. For now, researchers don’t envision non-military application for the high-tech caffeine high.

The research grew out of a recognition that while computers have automated many military functions, humans are needed in ever-larger numbers to monitor massive amounts of information in order to make crucial battlefield decisions.

“It used to be the people who would win the arm wrestling match would win the war,” said Alan Shaffer, the acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. “In the future it is going to be who can process information most quickly and react to that. If you can’t make sense of all the information coming in around you and get to a decision it has little value.”