Story and photos by David Vergun
Army News Service
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Maryland — Advances in brain science could lead to improvements in performance and decision making, changing the way Soldiers fight in the near future.
The improvements could include increased effectiveness in detecting and engaging the enemy and increased alertness while driving through the battlespace, according to Dr. Jean Vettel, a neuroscientist at Army Research Laboratory who spoke during a media day here on Thursday, July 28.
For the last seven years, Vettel’s team has been running experiments to gain a better understanding of the individual differences in brain patterns that could lead to future capabilities for soldiers in the 2040 timeframe.
During her team’s experiments, her researchers have been examining brain patterns using an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which records voltage fluctuations in different parts of the brain through sensors placed on a person’s head.
Test subjects who are hooked up to an EEG and other sensors drive around, either in a car simulator or a real car, while data is collected on their brain patterns. Researchers sometimes measure multitasking by introducing a car passenger to talk to the driver, Vettel said.
Brain patterns are formed by activated neural pathways linking various regions of the brain, but active neural connections can vary among people performing the same activity. For example, while pathways to one person’s object recognition region may be active, those to the language skills region of another person’s brain may be active.
The idea behind Vettel’s research is to build a database on the brain patterns of individuals and groups that will enable researchers to predict how Soldiers will drive in both a proactive state and in a reactive state, she said.
A proactive state is where a driver has good situational awareness of the road, an awareness that allows him to stay in his or her lane, for instance. A reactive state is when a driver must react to a situation, such as when a driver misses an exit and must come up with a new strategy, she said.
Researchers are beginning to use the database they have developed based on their experiments to predict both types of driving performance, she said.
In future experiments, her researchers might induce fatigue or sleep deprivation in the safety of the simulator, she said. Later, they will examine the brain patterns of Soldiers on patrol.
While Vettel is involved only in basic research, not applied research, the knowledge her team has gained through their experiments has a good likelihood of transitioning to prototype testing in the decades ahead.
Imagine a squad of Soldiers is on dismounted patrol in enemy territory, she said. They are monitoring for suspicious activity as part of their situational awareness. A Soldier may have an inkling of possible danger, but that almost subconscious feeling hasn’t yet reached the threat threshold so no warning is given to the platoon.
Now, imagine that EEG-like sensors have been embedded in the Soldier’s helmet or clothing. If several other Soldiers have the same inkling, the sensors could detect that and transmitters could convey a threat alert to them or to their commanders back in headquarters.
Drivers in a convoy could similarly have sensors that could detect drowsiness or inattentiveness, she speculated.
Alternatively, if the vehicle is an autonomous vehicle, sensors monitoring the brain patterns of the Soldier inside the vehicle could alert him or her that the autonomous vehicle is about to do something dangerous and it could turn the driving over to the Soldier, she said, calling the proposed system the “shared control model.”
Eventually, Vettel said she would like her researchers to use non-invasive sensors to monitor Soldiers all day doing a variety of tasks, which would dramatically increase the data they collect.