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By Michele Eaton 88 Air Base Wing Public Affairs
711 Human Performance Wing bioengineer, Dr. Andy McKinley (right), monitors the progress of volunteer Staff Sgt. William Raydon after applying an electric stimulation current to Raydon's brain as part of an Air Force non-invasive brain stimulation study conducted by researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory's 711 Human Performance Wing.
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Electric brain stimulation - the new caffeine?

Posted 3/12/2014   Updated 3/13/2014 Email story   Print story


by Michele Eaton
88 Air Base Wing Public Affairs

3/12/2014 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio  -- In the very near future, airmen may find themselves equipped with a pocket-sized, high-tech, non-invasive device that improves brain power and performance - like a couple of cups of coffee, only better.

It sounds like science fiction, or a new drug. In fact, it is a safe, painless, chemical-free and minimal side effect method of stimulating the brain using a mild electric current, or Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation - NIBS to its team of researchers at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM).

The Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate and the 711 Human Performance Wing have been testing the theory that stimulating particular areas of the brain can improve performance. The study has produced such positive results that the research team hopes they may have a deployable device within the next five years.

According to Dr. Andy McKinley, bioengineer at USAFSAM and program lead, the application of a mild, electric current to particular areas of the brain produces significant improvements in visual targeting and attention span, remediates the effect of fatigue on skills like these, and improves energy levels and mood in the volunteer study participants, all of whom are active duty Airmen.

The method itself is deceptively simple. In one of McKinley's tiny research labs, which is equipped with nothing more than a couple of computer monitors, a set of eye-movement trackers, and a box of electrode patches, Staff Sgt. William Raydon, a medical lab technician with the 711 HPW and a study volunteer, sits patiently while McKinley rubs conducting gel on his head and attaches stickers much like those found on electrocardiogram machines. One set goes on Raydon's head and another on his right arm.

In front of Raydon, there is a computer monitor and two small lenses that keep track of his eye movements. McKinley applies the current, which is a miniscule 1-2 milliamps - barely enough to perceive with a mild tingling sensation. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it takes around 120 mAs to cause heart rhythm disturbances. 1-2 mA's are just inside the perception threshold.

"What do you feel?" McKinley asks Raydon.

"A little tingling," Raydon says. "It just went away."

Raydon is given a targeting task on the monitor in front of him, and McKinley is able to measure how accurately and how quickly Raydon accomplishes the task, and how long he can continue.

"Participants can stay more vigilant and accurately pick out targets for a much longer time than people who don't receive the stimulation," said McKinley.

Side effects are few and mild. McKinley said that about 7 percent of participants complain of a mild headache and a few had mild and short-lived redness at the electrode site.

Raydon has volunteered as a test participant several times over the course of a few months. His tasking after the stimulation is applied always involves maintaining a high level of focus for an extended period of time.

"I did see a noticeable difference in attentiveness while performing the tasks," he said. "I was able to maintain my focus much longer than I anticipated without feeling any effect from the actual stimulation for more than 60 seconds."

Enhancing the brain's functionality

According to McKinley, the stimulation does not actually cause neurons to fire, but makes the neurons more or less likely to fire, enhancing what the neurons of the brain already are doing. When a person learns, for example, the brain is making new connections between neurons. The stimulation is thought to accelerate the formation of these new connections by making it easier for them to fire, resulting in enhanced learning processes and attention quality and span.

McKinley said that the team is also starting to see benefits to areas that are sensitive to fatigue - attention, working memory, response times, and improved mood. Study participants have reported that the stimulation seems to lessen the effect of fatigue on these skills, much like caffeine, but without side-effects like the caffeine crash.  The effect also last much longer - about six hours. Participants also reported that they felt less fatigued, less drowsy, more energetic, and in a better mood than participants that did not receive treatment.

The findings have been so significant that McKinley feels the stimulation may be particularly useful for the Air Force mission, including tasks that involve long periods of time and attention in front of a monitor - visualizing targets, operating an unmanned aircraft, piloting an aircraft, conducting special operations, and analyzing intelligence data. The technology would be small enough that it would lend itself to being carried in an airman's pocket.

But there is more work to do, said McKinley, including discovering the effects of using the stimulation over a long period of time.

"The goal is to examine this technology and find out what it does really well and what it doesn't do well, and then tailor some solutions for particular career fields and ultimately have a device that can be used by real operators," he said.

The research team is hoping that the device will be ready for use in a control rooms or classrooms in five years.

"I think we're past the proof of concept phase and we're trying to move toward something we can apply," said McKinley.

"They are doing fascinating work here within the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Human Effectiveness Directorate," said Raydon. "I encourage everyone to volunteer for a study and be part of something that could be huge in years to come."

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